Tiny houses to provide shelter for survivors of human trafficking

Carla Sweeney was running a sober house in Jacksonville three years ago when she first heard about sex trafficking.

A colleague from social services called and asked if she had room for a woman trying to escape such sexual exploitation. At the time, there were no beds available for her in the city. Not one.

“I had no experience of human trafficking. No knowledge of it, hadn’t been aware of its prevalence in Duval County, not a single clue,” Sweeney said.

Sober House co-founders Sweeney and Amy Kilgore dug in and decided to give the woman a bed at Awakenings House.

“We’ve never been asked this question before, but we try to serve our community with grace and mercy,” Sweeney said. “It was a pretty powerful moment… It was also a big moment for my world opening up and changing.”

It was so powerful that last year she and Donna Fenchel, a local entrepreneur who also wanted to help victims of human trafficking, launched an initiative to address the housing shortage. After two years of research and visits to other support programs, they are building The Villages of Hope, a small community of homes for female survivors of human trafficking and prostitution.

The first two residents are expected to arrive in March.

“We get phone calls all the time,” Sweeney said. “These girls should have a safe place to lay their heads so they can start to heal.”

At a National Human Trafficking Awareness Day event on Jan. 11 at Florida State College in Jacksonville, Sweeney said the local housing shortage was “critical” with only four beds available that day. That’s four beds for the city that ranks third in trafficking cases in Florida, the state that ranks third in the number of cases nationally.

Four beds “is really, really bad,” she said.

“We’re going to need everyone’s help to fix this,” she said. “Donna and I are trying to do our part to find a solution.”

TRAFFICKING SURVIVOR: “IT WAS JUST MY NORMAL”

One of the speakers at the FSCJ event was survivor Lisa Sheehan, who said she was first exploited at age 4, sexually assaulted in foster care at age 12, then working in a massage parlor for a pimp and being regularly raped and beaten.

She didn’t know she was trafficked—didn’t even know what it meant—until she was an adult.

“Everyone is looking for accommodation and something to eat, or have fallen in love with the trafficker,” she said. “They don’t feel exploited, often they feel loved or nurtured. No child or person should have to guess what love looks like. No child or person should confuse pain with love.

Sheehan grew up in Massachusetts. Her parents met at an AA meeting and she was conceived while drunk in a bar.

“I come from a long line of abuse, addiction and mental health issues,” she said. “It was just my normalcy. … I have little knowledge of what a healthy relationship should look like.

She survived thanks to the support of her maternal grandmother and some social workers who stayed with her. After moving to New Orleans with a friend, she turned her life around and started working in the mental health field helping others in crisis. She is now studying towards a Certified Clinical Social Worker degree at the FSCJ.

She is also a mentor for survivors at the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center which works to meet the needs of young women and girls, especially those impacted by the justice system.

“I wanted to be the person, the one to trust, even when the girls didn’t want me,” she said. For every girl she works with, she wants to help them see “the light at the end of the tunnel, I want her to see it the way I see it,” she said.

Sheehan and other panelists said there was positive movement in the fight against human trafficking. Law enforcement and other authorities are being trained on how to spot victims of trafficking, they are focusing more on prosecuting men who buy sex, and public awareness has increased, they stated.

NEED FOR DIFFICULT COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS

In 2021, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office rescued 15 human trafficking victims, including five minors, and made 33 related arrests, according to the agency.

At a Human Trafficking Awareness Month event last week, Sheriff Mike Williams said ongoing public education efforts by the region’s Coalition Against Human Trafficking will put the emphasis on the need for the community to call advice and suspicion.

“That’s the key to saving lives in this area,” Williams said. “We want to get the victim to safety and give them the help they need to get their life back on track and bring the situation to an end by arresting the offender.”

Yet a Duval County woman is 400% more likely to be arrested for prostitution than a man for being a buyer, according to Kristin Keen, who founded the nonprofit Rethreaded to provide jobs for trafficking survivors. human being.

“It will never stop until we address the demand issue,” she said. “Human trafficking is a business.

Young children need to be educated — about boundaries, consent and bodily autonomy — by their families or in preschool to prevent them from becoming victims or perpetrators, said Teresa Miles, CEO of the Women’s Center of Jacksonville Rape Crisis Center. .

“When they take care of themselves and learn to love themselves, they learn to love others,” she said. “When we talk about stopping the demand, we need to focus on young boys… 92% of our sexual assault survivors are female, 99 (%) of people who commit sexual assault are male. That’s where we need to focus, for prevention.

Public awareness is essential.

“This conversation is what we do well, having the hard conversation,” said Stephanie Patton, survivor leader at Rethreaded.

She said she understands why the general public might not want to discuss such a horrific subject, but they must play a part in ending trafficking.

“We need to conduct this conversation outside of this room. It’s not that scary once you break the ice,” she said.

Raising public awareness will strengthen support for victims.

“Insinuating that a person is making a bad choice implies that they have a better decision to make,” Patton said. “Give them a better decision to make. I promise they will choose to take control of their lives.

HOPE VILLAGES ‘REALLY GIVE HOPE’

Giving victims of trafficking a starting point became a passion for Sweeney and Fenchel, who met on the nonprofit trail.

Fenchel spent eight years in the corporate world and later became co-owner of several Orangetheory Fitness locations in the Jacksonville area and founded their charitable arm, Connections2Hope.

“It’s been tugging at my heart for a long time,” Fenchel said. “I was looking for a way to make a difference.

She heard about human trafficking from Rethreaded, who was one of Orangetheory’s charitable beneficiaries. She found the statistics – up to 325,000 children in the United States at risk of sexual exploitation each year, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services – “staggering”.

Fenchel was also stunned by the lack of local beds for victims.

“Housing is the number one issue. … Four beds in Jacksonville is not acceptable,” she said.

When Sweeney first researched human trafficking, she found the lack of housing for victims particularly infuriating. Housing, she said, is “part of their beginning, part of their journey.”

They had their focus.

“We’re going to do something ourselves,” Fenchel said.

Their tiny home project will be a welcome addition to the housing inventory for victims, according to Vicky Basra, president and CEO of the Weaver Center. There is not enough emergency housing, transitional housing and long-term housing for them, she said.

“Our research continues to show that housing is a major barrier for victims/survivors of human trafficking,” she said. “We continue to see the people we serve face challenges finding safe and adequate housing due to the barrier of criminal records, lack of rental history and inability to obtain employment that pays wages decent. …Villages of Hope truly gives survivors hope by breaking down the many obstacles that survivors face.

In 2019, Sweeney and Fenchel launched a six-month housing pilot program in sober home ownership, but in separate quarters. They had four trafficking victims; they and social service partners worked to heal women’s trauma and connect them to services. “It went really well,” Sweeney said.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Continuing the pilot program was “unfeasible,” Sweeney said. “We felt like God was telling us to slow down just for a second.”

So they slowed down. They did more research, looked into real estate, and settled on the concept of a tiny house community. They started fundraising and involving the community.

In May, a supporter purchased a third of an acre on the Westside of Jacksonville, which will be The Villages of Hope. Sixteen houses are to be built, each housing two women referred by the sheriff’s office and other partners.

“We’re going to build it and they’ll come because the need is there,” Sweeney said.

A building that was already on the property has been renovated into a community center, which will be a hub for meals, therapy and medical care. Additional buildings will house, among other things, a social enterprise, training and a store. Residents will be transported to services that are not on site.

The supporters of the Villages of Hope “are delighted. Everyone knows it’s a need,” Fenchel said. “It’s a pleasure to be able to help someone…have hope.”

For the women, she said, the first day in their tiny home will be a “sigh of relief.”

___

Times-Union writer Dan Scanlan contributed to this article.

Comments are closed.