HOUSTON - There are human trafficking victims who sleep in their own bed at night. There are students who are trafficked between when the bell rings at school and dinner with mom and dad. Would you know what to do if one of them spoke up to you about it?
January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Survivors and advocates spend these weeks trying to erase any stigma for those who were pulled into modern slavery.
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"I remember a time when no one was talking about it. No one understood it. No one is shining a light on it," says Kathy Givens, a trafficking survivor and co-founder of sex trafficking survivor support organization Twelve 11 Partners.
"I came to know about what trafficking through what I thought was just a bad relationship I was in years ago," Givens recalls. "Turns out this individual, who I thought I was in a dating relationship with, had one thing in mind and that was to capitalize. It took about a year or so of grooming and the process of seduction for this individual to literally convince me to leave my support network, and my community, and my family, to go away with him for what I thought was a job opportunity. A legitimate job opportunity."
Forced private labor generates an estimated $150 billion in illegal profits, according to the non-profit Safe Horizons.
"It’s a very lucrative business," explains Jennifer Hohman, advocate and founder of Houston-based anti-trafficking program Fight For Us.
She says the value of a victim is what leads traffickers to spend months, if not years, grooming someone to be exploited.
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"Men and women are stuck in the situation where somebody’s holding something over their head," Hohman says. "What I would tell those people is that you should be ashamed of nothing. We all make decisions that sometimes weren’t the right decision. But, there’s always somebody around you that you can try to find--either a school or at the workplace--that you can trust and say ‘help me get out of this.’"
Kathy agrees and says recovering from a trafficking experience is an aspect of the issue that often goes overlooked. One of the best resources for recovering from her experience with trafficking was community.
"Having a good support network around me," she smiles. "People that saw me. People that heard me. People that treated me like a human being."
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Their message to all who wish to help: don’t judge.
While many think of sex work when they think of human trafficking, it’s far from the only area where forced labor occurs. Construction, domestic work, and even agricultural labor trafficking is a huge issue in our country.
"Especially when it comes to immigration, and people coming over the border who are getting forced and coerced into working for nothing," says Hohman.
Houston is considered a top city for human trafficking. Hohman says that has led to Houston being one of the most robust cities in terms of resources for those being trafficked, including drop-in facilities for those considering leaving their lifestyle but unsure if they’re ready.
The true key to helping survivors? Givens says, "we can shower people with resources and we can do so many things, but the most important thing is to see someone, to hear someone, and then believe them."