NEW YORK-Thousands of women are sold for sex every day in New York City, but between two long-term restoration homes, only 24 spots exist for survivors to find long-term, holistic care. Seven of those spots are in a safe house in Queens, provided by Restore New York City, a nonprofit organization that provides long-term shelter for women who have been rescued out of sex trafficking.
New York has other shelter facilities for women fleeing domestic abuse, but few specialize in long-term, holistic care specifically for sex trafficking victims. At Restore, those survivors find more than a bed. They find community: conversations, prayer, movie nights, and safety.
Estimates vary, but the U.S. government estimates that between 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked in the United States each year. The Department of Justice estimated in 2005 that 100,000-150,000 people had been forced to labor as sex slaves in the United States since 2001, a vast majority of them women and children.
In New York, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Hersh helped indict 32 gang members who targeted young girls from a Brooklyn playground and then used them to recruit their peers from public schools. The sex trafficking unit she leads also successfully prosecuted a school mom who was coercing students to sell sex over the internet.
Of New York sex trafficking victims, 87 percent need long-term housing, notes Restore New York City executive director Jimmy Lee, quoting a study by Hofstra University: "But only 4 percent receive it."
At the group's annual gala on April 10, Lee as its new director took the stage dressed in a crisp gray suit and red tie. He talked about providing survivors with hope, with second chances and urged attendees to financially support funding a second safe house the group hopes to build in New Jersey by the end of this year.
Lee, who lives in Harlem with his wife Christine, took a 50 percent pay cut when he accepted the job. But he considers the position at Restore a chance to use his business skills to fight for justice: "If I could find an intersection between my talents and making an impact in this world for God's kingdom ... that's where I wanted to be."
Lee says that having a heart for social and economic justice for Christians "is not really an option. It's part of how we're wired." Lee hopes to continue to provide long-term safe housing for survivors, a solution that many see as the number one need for sex trafficking victims.
In April the new Restore director lobbied officials in support of reauthorization for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law that could increase funding for restoration homes. The law made trafficking a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison but is also supposed to provide protection for victims. Experts say that what both foreign and domestic victims of sex trafficking have in common, typically, is loss of identity. That makes providing them benefits and protection from further crime often difficult.
Under the law, if law enforcement agencies determine that foreign-born victims can serve as potential witnesses in efforts to combat trafficking, they may be authorized to stay in the United States on a temporary basis. Survivors can also apply for T visas, as long as they assist with the investigation or prosecution of trafficking. The T visas allow them to stay in the United States for three years, and then they can apply for permanent residency.
Many support the law because it classifies victims of sex trafficking under the age of 18 as victims of sexual exploitation. It also increases the amount of benefits available to them and protects victims from prosecution, while enforcing prosecution for those who purchase sex.
But some say the law doesn't go far enough to protect victims. In the first three years after its 2000 enactment, the government completed only 374 "continued presence" requests for visas, according to the U.S. State Department. Difficulties in enforcing the law, according to Washington attorney April Rieger of Williams & Connolly, who published a comprehensive report on the law, mean only a few victims are actually accessing benefits compared to the thousands of women trafficked in the United States. Too often it's too hard for a victim to prove her case. Officers may more often charge a sex trafficking victim with prostitution and treat her as a criminal.
Pimps and others often entrap women before they reach age 15, according to Morgan Perry, executive producer of the documentary Sex+Money, an exposé of domestic sex trafficking that just finished its national tour in January. "When you see an adult woman on the street, it's possible she's been in it since she was 13 or 14 ... she might not know anything else."
Perry's documentary is making rounds in the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Some officers have told her that when they see prostitutes, they only see paperwork and a futile case. After all, the women will likely be charged, possibly imprisoned, and probably end up back on the street, Perry said. But that's changing thanks to public awareness and the film: "They told me they had no idea. Now they said they can imagine what that girl is going through and they're motivated to do what they can." Some now go over and above protocol to get the girls off the street.
Educating average citizens also is paying off. Just a few days ago, Perry talked to one girl recently rescued because her aunt saw the documentary and realized her niece was a victim. She called law enforcement. The FBI got involved and pulled the girl out.
Perry said that even when citizens and law enforcement are informed, there is no safe place to put victims. Rescues are rare, and "enthusiasm hasn't translated into resources," explained Restore director Lee.
Restore specializes in serving immigrant survivors, providing them with shelter but also with other practical needs, like ESL classes, help applying for visas, and assistance with finding safe jobs. Their goal is to see the women transition from frightened victims to confident survivors and productive citizens.
Long-term restoration housing is one of the best solutions for these women but also the hardest to provide. Rent for the Restore house in Queens costs $3,500 per month, and taking care of trafficked women takes nearly $12,000 per year, per woman.
While public education, federal law, and better law enforcement all provide a part of the solution, both Perry and Lee say it's primarily the church that needs to step in. For starters, the church can contend against the cultural influences that make prostitution a viable industry: pornography, poverty, commercialization of sex in the media, and breakdown of the family. "Our churches should stand for purity for ourselves and then for everyone else," Perry said.
Churches also can open safe houses. "I've been to so many safe houses," Perry noted, "but the government places don't feel like home. They feel like a detention center."
In New York City, some non-faith-based organizations provide help, but Lee unabashedly said he thinks Christians do it best.
"As a Christian organization, we are able to offer true hope that other organizations can't provide. We provide the option to know the Lord," he said.
And that, says Perry, makes all the difference: "The girls I met who had met Jesus were the ones who were really restored."