The YWCA of Greater Portland will use $900,000 in federal money to help establish a shelter for victims of human sex trafficking, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden plans to announce in Portland on Saturday.
The funds come after a U.S. Department of Justice study ranked Portland and Seattle among 12 hub cities where traffickers recruit teenagers for sex work and move them around the country.
“One of the problems police have is these girls, when they’re arrested or turn themselves in or want to get out of the life, they have no place to go,” says Tom Towslee, a spokesman for Wyden. “It takes time for police to develop the evidence and case they need against the traffickers. With no place to go, all too often they end up going back into the shadows and often return to the men who abused them in the first place.
“These women are not criminals. They need someplace they can be safe, not in a jail, and can get services like counseling, which they need to turn their lives around.”
The YWCA initiative is just one of a few underway to help get sex trafficking victims and prostitutes off the street and into safe houses.
Wyden’s office is also co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would bring a federal grant of $2.5 million per year for three years, to create six safe houses around the country for girls 12 to 18 years old. Towslee says that Wyden hopes Portland would receive one of those grants, since it is recognized as a major hub for underage sex trafficking. The funds would support a safe house as well as boost law enforcement resources toward combating the crime.
The third effort under way is led by City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is working on a pilot program that would begin this fall. The program would place women seeking to escape their life on the street into private-market units around the city, rather than in one central “safe house.”
The nonprofit Join, which already works with the city’s housing efforts, uses a “housing-first” model that places people in housing and then gives them the social, financial and other support they need to maintain that housing. Join will provide the up-front rent and moving costs, work with the landlord and supply other help as needed.
LifeWorks Northwest, the nonprofit treatment center that already provides many services to these women, will supply the counseling, addiction treatment, employment assistance and any other help they may need.
If the woman relapses and returns to the street for a short time, she will not lose their housing, since that’s one of the philosophies of the housing-first model, says Amy Trieu, a policy coordinator for Saltzman: “The purpose is to build that trust.”
The city plans to start with a small group of four to six women this fall, then expand later.
Wyden will announce the funds for the YWCA at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the facility, 1111 S.W. 10th Ave. Other leaders joining him include Saltzman, County Commissioner Diane McKeel, State Rep. Carolyn Tomei and Eric Brown, executive director of the YWCA of Greater Portland.