Shelter officials say sex trade is increasing

Posted Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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ARLINGTON -- Recently, an 18-year-old woman showed up at the Arlington Life Shelter seeking a place to sleep. She wasn't alone, and she didn't appear to be there by choice.

A man brought her. Shelter workers believe he was a pimp.

"We started trying to talk with her individually, the man insisted on being present. She couldn't really speak for herself. He had to do all the talking," said Mark Young, the nonprofit's community initiatives director. "When she got admitted to the shelter, he was intent on finding out when she could leave, when he could see her. He was very persistent in trying to control everything she did."

Such encounters are rare, but shelter officials say they have been occuring more frequently. The Arlington Life Shelter is working to raise awareness about human trafficking in the city and what it can do as a nonprofit to recognize and help victims of sexual slavery as well as protect their other clients from the lifestyle.

Young and other shelter officials spoke at a panel discussion Thursday night at the Arlington Museum of Art.

Human trafficking generates about $32 billion annually worldwide, shelter operations director Karen Caston. Homeless children are particularly vulnerable to becoming victimized, she said, adding that 1 in 3 three homeless children in the United States is sold into sexual slavery within 48 hours of hitting the streets.

"It's a lucrative business," Caston said. "It's modern-day slavery."

Last year, the Arlington Police Department reported making 20 human-trafficking arrests and helping 30 people leave the sex trade.

Volunteers' vigilance

The Arlington Life Shelter, which recently observed its 25th anniversary, serves about 80 homeless people a night at its downtown location. People who need to stay longer than three nights are required to enroll in a structured, job skills program ranging from nine to 12 weeks.

Some clients are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Others are unemployed or underemployed. The shelter wants to make sure they and their children aren't lured into the sex trade, Assistant Executive Director Janel Holt said.

"We've got people who are here because of the recession. They are brand new to dealing with poverty," Holt said. "We really don't want them to get caught up in this kind of thing because that will continue to bring them down."

Shelter officials say they want to provide human-trafficking victims a safe place to stay and the resources they need to get off the street. The agency has encouraged its volunteers to be vigilant for clients who may be in that situation.

"These people wouldn't be selling themselves if there weren't people who were buying. Movies like Pretty Woman make it seem kind of glamorous and romantic to be in that situation," Holt said. "It's not. When people really open their eyes to it, it's something that you can't unsee."

Unfortunately, shelter officials say, they could not help the woman who arrived with the pushy man, beyond giving her a place to sleep. When she left the shelter the next morning, the man followed her on his bicycle as she walked down the street.

The woman did call again, seeking assistance, and shelter workers tried to persuade her to come back, but she declined.


Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

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