Survivors of human trafficking and prostitution have a new resource to turn to and a new place to heal.
Carmela’s Place at Refuge House, an eight-bed facility with around-the-clock access to counselors, launched in February at a secure, undisclosed location. Named after a woman who escaped prostitution years ago and modeled on the advice of survivors, it offers a haven for people trying to flee sexual exploitation of all kinds.
“It’s a comprehensive, low-barrier, survivor-informed program,” said Emily Mitchem, executive director of Refuge House. “What that really means is we meet people where they are in their journey out of the sex trade.”
Refuge House has provided shelter and services to victims of domestic and sexual violence for more than four decades. The nonprofit, which operates two emergency shelters and multiple transitional housing sites, is the certified provider of those services in Leon and seven surrounding counties.
“As such, what we get and have always gotten were people escaping their boyfriend — who’s actually their pimp or trafficker — or showing up after a sexual assault to our forensic exam clinic,” Mitchem said. “That’s been going on for years and years.”
About a decade ago, Refuge House started an outreach program to survivors called “We Know Prostitution Hurts,” though funding was minimal and there was no dedicated space for housing. Last year, the nonprofit was awarded $230,000 in federal grant money for additional off-site housing, which freed up one of its buildings for Carmela’s Place.
The facility is open to women and men regardless of whether they were sexually exploited through force, fraud or coercion, which is how Florida law defines human sex trafficking. It helps people involved in any kind of commercial sex act, from prostitution to stripping and “camming” on the internet.
Carmela’s Place offers the security of a gated compound and full-time staff for support along with eight private bedrooms, three living areas, two kitchens and a kitchenette.
“It’s a nice comfortable place to start healing from the trauma they’ve experienced and planning for the future,” Mitchem said. “It gives people the time they need to re-establish themselves and make positive connections with supportive family or friends.”
Robin Hassler Thompson, executive director of the Survive and Thrive Advocacy Center, which helps victims of human trafficking, applauded the new effort.
“The services that Refuge House provides at Carmela’s Place are important and valuable to the community,” she said. “As STAC assists survivors of sex trafficking, we are grateful that this resource exists in this community.”
Mitchem said survivors come to Carmela’s Place with long histories of abuse. Nearly all were sexually abused as children, grew up in homes with domestic violence and were “turned out” into prostitution in their early teens, sometimes by their own family.
Many have post-traumatic stress and substance abuse issues. Carmela’s Place offers case managers to help women reach their own self-identified goals along with individual counseling and therapy. Input from survivors guides all the services.
“We don’t require a lot of victims before they come to see us,” Mitchem said. “We find that’s what keeps people safe and that’s what keeps people coming back to us because they trust us and they know they’re going to be met with unconditional positive regard.”
Refuge House partners with local agencies to bring in job-readiness and financial literacy programs. Some survivors take courses at Lively Technical College or Tallahassee Community College only to make the dean’s list or start their own businesses.
“There’s every reason to hope,” Mitchem said, “and there’s absolutely no such thing as a lost cause.”
For more information about Carmela’s Place or how to make a donation, visit https://refugehouse.com. The 24-hour hotline is available by calling 850-681-2111.TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT