Hultgren forum in Gurnee stresses needs of trafficking victims
The mission of the social service providers gathered by congressman Randy Hultgren in Gurnee Tuesday night is to rescue all 25,000 women and girls who are victimized by human trafficking in Illinois. But they face a frustrating logistical obstacle to reaching that goal.
There are only about 25 safe beds in the entire state designated for those victims. If all 25,000 became free from their captors, only 0.1 percent of them would have immediate access to the help they need.
Darci Jenkins, a member of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force, said the No. 1 goal for helping a victim of trafficking is finding that person housing. Shelters can fill the need on a temporary basis, often up to a year.
But even the 25 beds dedicated to trafficking victims in Illinois are available to only women who have been sexually exploited. Victims of labor trafficking have zero beds available to them. Jenkins said there are about three times as many victims of labor trafficking as there are sex trafficking victims.
"The No. 1 goal is always housing," Jenkins said. "Bouncing around from homeless shelters to acquaintances' houses or hotels for a couple night is not stable. If we're not providing them housing, they are at risk for re-exploitation."
The speakers explained that trafficking victims are swept into lives as prostitutes and slave laborers often with the allure of just being able to fill a basic need. For foreign-born victims, it might be the prospect of work and a better life in the United States. It's not long before that worker is in America, working for pennies an hour, often in the agricultural, hotel or nail and beauty salon industries.
Likewise, young girls are lured by charismatic men with promises of money, shelter or modeling careers, only to find themselves forced to make $4,000-a-day quotas as prostitutes.
The solution begins with identifying victims. Anyone who suspects a trafficking activity can anonymously report it by calling the National Human Trafficking hotline at (888) 373-7888.
The second part is persuading the victims to accept the help available and help prosecute the traffickers.
The third part is housing. Karen Schultz is part of a group trying to expand those initial housing options for victims. She is the Chicago city director of Refuge for Women. The program currently helps victims of trafficking in Kentucky.
The former executive director of Fox Valley Church in West Dundee, Schultz wants to build a new shelter for trafficking victims in the Northwest suburbs. She's currently seeking a location.
Schultz's organization offers a yearlong program for victims. It includes addiction recovery, if necessary, counseling and job training skills, all set in a family home environment. Schultz said many of the victims she sees have never even had a birthday party.
"No little girl grows up wanting to sell her body to be the star in a porno movie," Schultz said. "Think of them as the little girls that you know, your daughters. Something terrible has happened to them. It will take the collaborative efforts of all of us to do something."
That includes getting past the not-in-my-backyard fears neighborhoods often have when a shelter wants to come to town, Schultz said. To get around that obstacle, her organization tries to locate properties in open spaces just outside of towns that still feel like part of a community. That's crucial to reassimilating the women into normal lives and making them want to give back to the communities that welcome them.
Hultgren said he will help work on the dearth of housing for victims. Tuesday's event was his second community forum on the trafficking issue in the past year. He already has pushed legislation through Congress to hold foreign governments more accountable if they fail to prohibit the purchase of commercial sex acts.