By BETH REESE CRAVEY, Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Carla Sweeney was running a sober-living house in Jacksonville three years ago when she first learned about sex trafficking.
A social services colleague called and asked if she had space for a woman who was trying to escape such sexual exploitation. At the time, there were no beds available for her in the city. Not a one.
“I had no experience in human trafficking whatsoever. No knowledge of it, had not been aware of how prevalent it is in Duval County, not one clue,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney and Amy Kilgore, a co-founder at the sober-living house, did some digging and decided to give the woman a bed at Awakenings House.
“We’d never been asked this question before, but we try to serve our community with grace and mercy,” Sweeney said. “That was a pretty powerful moment … That was also a big moment for my world opening up and changing.”
It was so powerful that last year she and Donna Fenchel, a local entrepreneur who also wanted to help human-trafficking victims, began an initiative to address the housing shortage. After two years of research and visits to other support programs, they are building The Villages of Hope, a tiny-home community for women survivors of human trafficking and prostitution.
The first two residents are expected to arrive in March.
“We get phone calls all the time,” Sweeney said. “These girls should have a safe place to lay their head so they can start healing.”
During a Jan. 11 National Human-Trafficking Awareness Day event at Florida State College at Jacksonville, Sweeney said the local housing shortage was “critical” with only four beds available that day. That’s four beds for the city that ranks third in trafficking cases in Florida, the state that ranks third in the number of cases nationwide.
Four beds “is really, really bad,” she said.
“We’re going to need everybody’s help to get that resolved,” she said. “Donna and I are trying to do our part toward a solution.”
TRAFFICKING SURVIVOR: ‘IT WAS JUST MY NORMAL’
One of the speakers at the FSCJ event was survivor Lisa Sheehan, who said she was first exploited at age 4, sexually assaulted in a foster home at age 12 and later worked at a massage parlor for a pimp and was regularly raped and beaten.
She did not know she was being trafficked — didn’t even know what that meant — until she was an adult.
“Everyone is looking for a place to stay and something to eat, or fell in love with the trafficker,” she said. “They don’t feel they’re being exploited, often they feel loved or nurtured. No child or person should have to guess what love feels like. No child or person should mistake pain for love.”
Sheehan grew up in Massachusetts. Her parents met at an AA meeting and she was conceived while they were drunk at a bar.
“I come from a long line of abuse, drug addiction and mental-health issues,” she said. “It was just my normal. … I have little knowledge of what a healthy relationship should look like.”
She survived with support from her maternal grandmother and a few social workers who stuck with her. After moving to New Orleans with a friend, she turned her life around and began work in the mental-health field helping other people in crisis. Now she is studying toward a licensed clinical social worker degree at FSCJ.
She also is a survivor mentor at the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center that works to meet the needs of young women and girls, particularly those impacted by the justice system.
“I wanted to be the person, the one to trust, even when girls don’t want me there,” she said. For each girl she works with, she wants to help them see “the light at the end of the tunnel, I want her to see her as I see her,” she said.
Sheehan and other panelists said there is positive movement in the fight against human trafficking. Law enforcement and other authorities are receiving training in how to spot victims of trafficking, they are shifting more of their focus to prosecuting the men who purchase sexual favors, and public awareness has increased, they said.
TOUGH COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS NEEDED
In 2021 the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office rescued 15 human-trafficking victims, five of whom were juveniles, and made 33 related arrests, according to the agency.
During a Human-Trafficking Awareness Month event last week, Sheriff Mike Williams said ongoing public-education efforts by the area Human-Trafficking Coalition will emphasize the need for the community to call in tips and suspicions.
“This is the key to saving lives in this area,” Williams said. “We want to get the victim to safety and get them the help they need to get their lives back on track and get some type of closure with the situation by arresting the offender.”
Still, a woman in Duval County is 400 percent more likely to be arrested for prostitution than the man is for being a purchaser, according to Kristin Keen, who founded nonprofit Rethreaded to provide jobs for human-trafficking survivors.
“It’s never going to stop unless we address the issue of demand,” she said. “Human trafficking is a business.”
Young children must be educated — about boundaries, consent and body autonomy — by their family or in prekindergarten to help prevent them from becoming victims or perpetrators, said Teresa Miles, CEO of the Women’s Center of Jacksonville Rape Crisis Center.
“When they take care of themselves and they learn to love themselves, they learn to love others,” she said. “When we talk about stopping the demand, we have got to focus on young boys … 92 percent of our survivors of sexual assault are women, 99 (percent) of the people who perpetrate sexual assault are men. That is where we need to focus, for prevention.”
Public awareness is key.
“This conversation is what we’re doing right, having the hard conversation,” said Stephanie Patton, survivor leader at Rethreaded.
She said she understood why the general public might not want to discuss such a horrific topic, but they must play a part in ending trafficking.
“We need to take this conversation outside of this room. It’s not that scary once you break the ice,” she said.
Boosting public awareness will boost support for victims.
“To imply that a person is making a bad choice implies they have a better decision to make,” Patton said. “Give them a better decision to make. I promise they will choose to reclaim their life.”
VILLAGES OF HOPE ‘TRULY GIVING HOPE’
Giving trafficking victims a place to start anew has become a passion for Sweeney and Fenchel, who met on the nonprofit trail.
Fenchel spent eight years in the corporate world and later became co-owner of several Jacksonville-area Orangetheory Fitness locations and founded their charity arm, Connections2Hope.
“It’s been tugging on my heart for a long time,” Fenchel said. “I was looking for a way to make a difference.”
She learned about human trafficking from Rethreaded, which was one of Orangetheory’s charity beneficiaries. She found the statistics — as many as 325,000 children in the United States are at risk for sexual exploitation each year, according to the federal Department of Health & Human Services — “staggering.”
Fenchel also was stunned at the lack of local beds for victims.
“Housing is the number-one issue. … Four beds in Jacksonville is not acceptable,” she said.
When Sweeney first researched human trafficking, she had found the lack of housing for victims particularly galling. Housing, she said, is “part of their beginning, part of their journey.”
They had their focus.
“We’re going to do something ourselves,” Fenchel said.
Their tiny-home project will be a welcome addition to the housing inventory for victims, according to Vicky Basra, president and CEO of the Weaver Center. There is insufficient emergency housing, transitional housing and long-term housing for them, she said.
“Our research continues to show housing as a major barrier for victims/survivors of human trafficking,” she said. “We continue to see the individuals we serve facing issues locating safe and adequate housing due to criminal record barrier, lack of rental history and inability to secure job that pays livable wages. …Villages of Hope is truly giving hope to survivors by eliminating the many of these barriers faced by survivors.”
In 2019 Sweeney and Fenchel began a six-month pilot housing program at the sober-living house property but in separate quarters. They had four trafficking victims; they and social service partners worked to heal the women’s trauma and connect them to services. “It went very well,” Sweeney said.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Continuing the pilot program was “unfeasible,” Sweeney said. “We felt like God was telling us to slow down just a second.”
So they slowed down. They did more research, looked at real estate and decided on the tiny-home community concept. They began fundraising and getting the community involved.
In May a supporter purchased one-third of an acre on Jacksonville’s Westside, which will be The Villages of Hope. Sixteen homes are to be built, each housing two women referred by the Sheriff’s Office and other partners.
“We’re going to build it and they will come because the need is out there,” Sweeney said.
A building that was already on the property has been renovated as a community center, which will be a hub for meals, therapy and medical care. Additional buildings will house social enterprise, training and a store, among other things. Residents will be transported to services that are not on site.
Supporters of The Villages of Hope “are excited about it. Everybody knows it’s a need,” Fenchel said. “It’s a pleasure to be able to help someone … have hope.”
For the women, she said, the first day in their tiny home will be a “sigh of relief.”