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With Human Trafficking More In The Spotlight, Resources Are At A Premium For Victims

Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Feb. 1 is Super Bowl Sunday. By presidential declaration, it’s also Freedom Day, marking the end of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

As awareness of human trafficking has grown, lawmakers at the state and national levels have been doing what they can to combat it. But most of the heavy lifting falls on the shoulders of non-profits.

It was early 2009, and DedeeLhamon was watching an MSNBC documentary on sex trafficking overseas. 

"And, then the focus switched from international to domestic, and it was just something that just pierced my heart," Lhamon said. "I told my husband, I have to figure out more about this issue, and if it's real, what I need to do."

Lhamon spent the next year researching the issue and it proved to be a real eye-opener. For example, St. Louis was a known hub for human trafficking because of its access to highways and the concentration of sex clubs in the Metro East, among other reasons. Even today, the region remains a hot spot, according to the Justice Department.  But in her hunt for groups to help for solutions, Lhamon found widespread ignorance similar to her own.

“In 2009, practically the only group in the community that didn’t think I had two heads and believed me were some of the nuns," she said. "People didn’t think it happened here. They weren’t aware of it, and how can it happen in the United States, much less in the Midwest?"

Today, Lhamon is the executive director of the Covering House, a 5-year-old nonprofit that in 2013 had nearly $300,000 in assets — including a residential treatment facility southwest of St. Louis for 13- to 17-year-old girls.

The Covering House facility opened late last year and currently serves five girls. It was the second such facility to open in St. Louis since 2012. The first was a place run by Crisis Aid International, which had previously worked mostly with girls in Africa.

This coming April, there will be a third treatment facility opening.

"We Provide Everything The Women Could Possibly Need."

Credit Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio
These plans outline how workers are transforming a 155-year-old tenement in the city's Old North neighborhood into Magdalene House.

Scraping and thumping can be heard from the roof as Tricia Roland-Hamilton navigates the narrow stairwells of a 155-year-old tenement that's being rehabbed in the city's Old North neighborhood. The contractors are transforming this three-story building into Magdalene House, a residential facility that will eventually house as many as 10 women who have been in the sex trade. 

“Over the course of two years in our program, we provide everything the women could possibly need, from medical, dental and therapeutic care to education, job training, job placement, life-skills training," said Tricia Roland-Hamilton, the program's executive director.

Magdalene House is based on a program that started in Nashville, Tenn., in 1997. Nearly 80 percent of its graduates are "clean, sober and living productive lives" at least two years after finishing the program, a statistic Roland-Hamilton calls astounding. In addition to giving the women a place to stay and the resources they need to cope with the aftermath of trauma, Roland-Hamilton hopes to launch a social enterprise.

Roland-Hamilton worked for three years to bring Magdalene House to St. Louis. The community awareness of the problem has grown, she said, along with the willingness to step up.

"We're not a faith-based organization, but we've found that various congregations really want to help us implement these program, and they bring to us volunteers, clothes drives, whatever we may need that a group like that could offer us," she said.  

Credit Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio
A hotel donated its old furniture to Magdalene House. Artists donated their time to spruce up the pieces.

But the services available to people who escape human trafficking still fail to address the full scope of the situation. For example, said Roland-Hamilton, take a woman arrested on a drug charge.

"If in the court system, you know a woman has had a history of prostitution, they’re in there on a drug charge, they get sent away for 60 days of drug rehab, and they feel that’s enough. And it’s not," Roland-Hamilton said. "Getting through drug rehab in s the first of many steps these women need to take to gain their lives back."

What Else Is Needed           

Additional resources are also crucial. Residential treatment programs like The Covering House and Magdalene are expensive to run. Though more federal money is now available for victims of human trafficking, neither organization receives much, if any of those dollars. The agencies that do say it helps a lot.

Amanda Mohl coordinates anti-trafficking efforts at the International Institute of St. Louis. The Institute's clients are more likely to be victims of labor trafficking rather than sex trafficking.

Prior to 2014, Mohl said, the agency generally received federal assistance only if they provided services to a victim of human trafficking. Thanks to a new federal grant, there’s now a staffer working on the issue full time.

"She’s there doing outreach, working with the Department of Labor, and different labor unions to try and increase identification, until she has clients that she needs to work with," Mohl said of Caitlyn Drozda.

"What I found really interesting was when a client told me, 'I  didn't realize I was a victim,'" Drozda said. "They were going through this really difficult  time and they had no idea that what was happening to them was wrong. That really opened my eyes to the fact that people don't know, and if they don't know, they can't ask for help."

But finding more victims is a double-edged sword, said Dedee Lhamon of the Covering House.

"Education and awareness and training and developing best practices are tremendous,  but what happens is, when they start identifying all these cases, where do they take them? What are we going to do with them?" she said. "And so it’s kind of bittersweet."

Over the next five years, Lhamon said, she hopes to see more funding made available for agencies like hers that were created to help those newly identified victims of human trafficking.

Resources was a wish of Tricia Roland-Hamilton at Magdalene St. Louis, too. But she is pushing as well for a fundamental shift in the way her clients are treated.

"I would like it to be common practice that these women are treated like the victims they are, that we have a crackdown on the men who are purchasing the sex, and that we are treating these women with the love and the dignity that they deserve," she said.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.