Surviving Trafficking

Inside of California’s homelessness crisis, another crisis gets little attention: sex trafficking. In some cases, experiences of sex trafficking push people into homelessness. In other cases, being homeless makes them more vulnerable to sex trafficking. It can be a matter of life and death. 

Tonya is a woman in her 50s who lives in a tent in Sacramento. She shared her story of sex trafficking in her teens to bring awareness to an issue that is too often ignored because its victims are often already part of overlooked communities. Here is her story in her own words, lightly edited and condensed for clarity. When Tonya was 15, a young guy pulled up alongside her while sitting at a bus stop in Sacramento. He asked if she wanted a ride. 

I can only remember bits and pieces of this – it’s been a long time. 

We went to a female’s apartment. I found out later down the road it was his “main girl.” We went to his place, and everything seemed ok. I remember at one point that I was trying to call my family, and he came in and said, “Who are you talking to?” I told him I was calling my family. He took my phone and beat the shit out of me and said I would never see them again. 

At this point, I had to make him believe that I was ok with all this so he would drop me off places and not have someone watching me. 

When a customer walked in (to the parlor), they had to say something to let the staff know they wanted a girl. First, you paid them, picked a girl, and then you had to pay the girl for whatever you did with them. Back then, I always had this mean look on my face. I didn’t have to have sex with any of them; they wanted me to either masturbate in front of them or watch while they played with themselves. Other times I had to steal money from the other girls so he (the pimp) would think I was working. 

One of the other girls in the house decided to take off one day. The main guy finds out where she is, and he and his friend want her back. So I was told to come along. 

They said I was to get in the front seat while they got her in the car, and I was to drive straight back to the house – fast. When we got to where she was, they jumped out and snatched her up. She was screaming from the back seat to crash the car, but he told me that I would get my ass beat if I did. 

I don’t remember much, just that when we got back, she got beat. 

After a while, they would let me go to the store by myself. I told the guy at that store that I would come in and ask him to call a cab one day. I had gotten to know him by then, and he agreed without asking any questions. When the day finally came, I was shaking. He called the cab; I got in and had him take me home. I didn’t say shit to anyone about what happened. 

One day while I was at a pay phone, his “main girl” saw me. She accused me of stealing from the other girls. I said, “how did you let him do what he did to me?” I ran back home… When I went home after I left the place, I was scared for a long time. I would not leave my house for about three months. After that, I never went back to Broadway. I don’t know why I never told anyone. It took a long time for me to trust anybody that came around me. I guess I didn’t want to be judged. 

This experience lasted for about six months of Tonya’s life. While she doesn’t know whether this experience caused her homelessness, she is sure of the lasting psychological effects it has had on her life. Every day she experiences anxiety and lives in a constant state of hyper-awareness of her surroundings. Trust is difficult. Sharing her story has brought back many painful feelings and memories, but she wants to share her story to raise awareness of the many perils of sex trafficking and the long-lasting effects on a person’s life. 

Experiences like Tonya’s are all too common among people experiencing homelessness, according to advocates at Women Escaping a Violent Environment (WEAVE) and Community Against Sexual Harm (CASH), two Sacramento-based organizations that provide crisis intervention services, counseling, and advocacy for victims and survivors of sex trafficking. 

Advocates from WEAVE and CASH describe how women and men experiencing homelessness are lured in by the promise of housing or safety – something that life on the streets hasn’t given them. They remain captive because of fear, shame, and guilt for their actions, which they may believe society will never understand. 

There exists a stereotype that “blonde girls are being stolen out of suburban malls,” says Beth Hassett, Chief Executive Officer & Executive Director of WEAVE. “This is just not what we are seeing.” 

More likely, sex trafficking victims come from the foster system, poor or underserved communities, or abusive homes. Romeo pimps (men who attract victims through deceit) or female perpetrators recruit their victims from these situations because often no one will come looking for them. Many are from black, brown, and indigenous communities. Their disappearance is explained away by law enforcement or society in general by saying that they just ran off, or their absence is not even considered. 

Homeless youth are vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking because they tend to experience a higher rate of the primary risk factors to trafficking – poverty, unemployment, a history of sexual abuse, and mental health issues. 

Sawan Vaden, a Program Administrator for CASH, describes homeless youth sex trafficking as “being moved from motel to motel – never being able to stay in a home.” Young homeless LGBTQ and Trans folks may find themselves on the street because of a lack of acceptance by their families and engage in sex for survival. 

WEAVE and CASH help folks who are ready. Both use peer support and outreach to community partners. CASH offers a drop-in center. WEAVE and CASH offer trained staff with various experiences and expertise to engage victims. Survivors can receive assistance with counseling, medical, psychiatric, and housing support. 

Both WEAVE and CASH work with law enforcement agencies to prosecute criminals. Prosecutors have stepped up efforts with law enforcement to go after the real criminals in sex trafficking: pimps, panderers, massage parlors and the customers. 

The real victims—the exploited—can increasingly get services and assistance through robust funding allocations made by the State of California to organizations like WEAVE and CASH. Instead of handcuffs and shame they are being recognized by prosecutors and legislators for the damage done to them physically, mentally, and emotionally. In California, Governor Newsom signed into law AB-262. This law clears a path for trafficked individuals to have their criminal record sealed and destroyed. This “clearing” of a person’s record can happen in months, allowing an individual to move on with their life without the burden of a criminal record. 

WEAVE, CASH, and Tonya agree that there is more work to do. State and local laws must require more robust penalties for the offenders. Regional code enforcement offices and prosecutors need to shut down massage parlors that are a front for trafficking activities. LGBTQ and Transitional Age Youth service providers, non-profits, and community-based organizations need to continue working with organizations like WEAVE and CASH to outreach to the homeless population. Law makers need to develop more progressive policies and laws like AB262 to move people from the difficult experiences sex trafficking has caused to a place of greater stability. 

If you or someone you know may be the victim of trafficking, reach out to WEAVE at 916-920-2952 or CASH 916-856-2900 before doing anything and when it is safe to do so. 

Tips can be made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline 24/7 @ 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. 

And, of course, if you are in immediate danger, please call 911. 

(Both writers are recent graduates of Street-Based Journalism 12-week course, a collaboration between CalMatters, Homeward Street Journal and Street Sheet. This story, a product of that course, was originally published in Homeward Street Journal earlier this year.)