Founded and led by military families, The Safe House Project (SHP) is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering victims of human trafficking by providing them a place to call home.
The group is focused on the development of safe houses for survivors of sex trafficking. Its 2030 mission is to eradicate child sex trafficking in America by strengthening networks.
Human trafficking is a global issue that affects roughly 40.3 million people and roughly 300,000 American children each year. Less than 1% of those victims will be rescued. And, if they are lucky enough to be rescued, what happens to them?
“In 2018, there were less than 100 beds in special care homes [in the U.S.],” Brittany Dunn, a Navy spouse and co-founder of SHP, said.
Without a place to go, many victims are turned over to the foster care system, juvenile detentions or mental institutions, with some even electing to return to their captors.
According to the US Department of Justice, finding adequate and appropriate emergency, transitional, and long-term housing is often the biggest service-related challenge that [human trafficking] task forces face.
Dunn, along with SHP co-founders and fellow Navy spouses Kristi Wells and Vicki Tinnel, began researching ways they could fill the gap. Rather than start a small non-profit organization focused on helping their local community, they thought big.
SHP accelerates safe house development through providing education, resources, funding and government contacts to local nonprofits who seek to establish safe houses within their local communities. These individual safe houses provide specialized counseling and resources to help victims get out of the cycle of abuse. By adopting a business-like organizational structure, SHP partners do not have to work in isolation to solve a problem. They are part of a larger network and better able to solve big-picture problems.
“What most people see as a disadvantage, moving around constantly, we’ve been able to use that to our advantage,” Dunn said. “A majority of our volunteers across the U.S. are military families. That creates networks that most people do not have as a natural resource.”
Many survivors find art therapy to be an important part of processingtheir past. Art allows them to express their pain, while also helping them find their wings.
Why is this so hard?
Like other national problems, sex trafficking issues are often complicated by the division of power between local, state and federal government. If a victim is rescued in a state that does not have an active safe house, SHP will attempt to have them transferred to a neighboring state that can provide the resources they need.
While this is the ideal model, according to Dunn, some CPS [Child Protective Services] don’t want to see their dollars flow out of state.
“That is where education and awareness come in,” she said.
Victim reintegration from a stable treatment environment back into the “real world” must be strategic. Without proper planning, victims could easily run into former “johns” and reenter the cycle of abuse. The reason safe houses are so essential is because victims have specialized needs and many shelters do not have the resources or government mandate to help them.
“There is a need domestically for improved victim services, trauma-informed support, better data on the prevalence and trends of human trafficking,” Congressman Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said at a Safe House Project’s Freedom Requires Action event held earlier this year. Hudson, a cosponsor of the 2019 Put Trafficking Victims First Act, hopes this legislation will “provide stakeholders — from law enforcement to prosecutors to service providers to government officials — with the guidance and information they need to better serve victims of trafficking.”
Congressman Richard Hudson, R-N.C. was a guest speaker at the Safe House Project’s Freedom Requires Action event in January 2020 event held in the U.S. Capitol building. Hudson is also cosponsor of the 2019 Put Trafficking Victims First Act
The majority of trafficked children are not victims of a snatch and grab.
“We live under a perception that our kids are safer because they are in a first world country, but they aren’t. It is the harsh reality,” Dunn said. “It just looks different. Instead of having a red-light district in Thailand, you have kids being recruited on Fortnite or being approached peer-to-peer in schools.”
Every time a child is exposed to sexually-explicit content in conversations, on television or online, underage sex becomes normalized. For some, abusive acts do not feel like the crimes and victims do not feel like they are being victimized.
“Child sex trafficking is a difficult subject to talk about but raising awareness and talking about it is the first step in solving it,” Ria Story, Tedx speaker, author and survivor leader, said.
Safe House Project and Coffee Beanery are teaming up to raise awareness in coffee shops across America. Advocates also marked their hands in red to support the #EndItMovement.
See something. Say something. Do something.
According to Dunn, “any epidemic has two sides to eradication. Prevention and treatment.” She encourages everyone to look for the problems that may lie under the surface.
In addition to providing safe houses, SHP has trained over 6,000 military personnel to recognize and report instances of sex trafficking and hope to more than double this number by the end of 2020. And for those who cannot attend an official training, SHP offers online tools (https://www.safehouseproject.org/sex-trafficking-statistics).
For more information or to donate to SHP, visit: https://www.safehouseproject.org/donate