Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=231075
Story Retrieval Date: 12/19/2014 9:10:13 AM CST
In a warehouse on Kingsbury Street, a group of about 20 people sits around a rectangle of tables, littered with advertising campaigns, brochures and business cards. Streaks of sun from angled skylights call attention to massive photos on the southwest wall. The images, in black and white, show the solemn faces of victims of human trafficking, the global issue that today’s roundtable of experts has come together to discuss and fight. That is, once they’ve finished fighting one another.
“This is an issue of awareness,” says one participant. “We need to address the pimp-glorifying culture and make sure people know this is going on right here in Chicago.”
“I know that’s important but I don’t think that’s the task,” interjects another woman, the organizer of an arts and education program for sex trafficking survivors. “How are we going to get the survivors involved in this conversation?
The table of activists is facing an impasse that may sound familiar to many. Human trafficking is an issue that is largely hidden, and survivors are in need of resources to ensure safety. While ideally Chicago activists operate under the idea of unity between awareness and action, it’s a notion that hides the fragmented nature of the movement, where organizations are torn between educating the public and protecting survivors.
In May, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services teamed up with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office, the FBI and Cook County prosecutors to unveil “Our Children Are Not For Sale,” an awareness campaign aimed at showing Illinoisans the true nature of human trafficking and its existence all over the state.
“I think people are shocked, and even when you say that it’s happening here they’re like, ‘Oh, you mean Eastern European girls are being brought here,’” said Karen Hawkins, spokeswoman for DCFS. “Like, no, these are girls from the suburbs, these are girls from Chicago, Joliet, Aurora.”
Hawkins said part of the struggle in combatting trafficking is the fact that so few people realize the issue persists in Chicago. She said awareness campaigns are an integral part of beginning the process toward action and rescuing victims of trafficking, and it’s a role more suited for DCFS.
“As a state agency, our role is partially prevention. For us this is a more appropriate fit in terms of raising awareness,” Hawkins said.
But for other activists in the fight against human trafficking, poster campaigns and prevention pale in comparison to needs such as rehabilitation, counseling and long-term safe houses. Currently, the only designated housing for survivors is limited to sex trafficking and consists of only 10 beds at Anne’s House, a Salvation Army-affiliated organization whose location is undisclosed to protect the clients.
A just-passed Illinois bill is expected to raise funds for additional beds, as well as counseling and other survivor services, according to State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights) who introduced the legislation. A portion of fines from sex trafficking charges and seized assets will go toward the Specialized Services for Survivors of Human Trafficking Fund.
“Right now we have to amass as many tools as we can to get to the crux of this issue,” Hutchinson said.
“Chicago needs to wake up,” said Tye Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher and artist who partners with the Dreamcatcher Foundation to provide resources to survivors. “Ten beds? We should be embarrassed as a city.”
The Dreamcatcher Foundation is a survivor-run organization that focuses primarily on the need for safe housing in Chicago. While education factors into their programs, Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, founder and CEO, said the nonprofit’s priority is fundraising to create a drop-in crisis center, which would offer survivors a safe place to stay and take part in other Dreamcatcher programs, like peer counseling.
“We need a facility where we can have a crisis center to service these ladies 24/7,” said Daniels-Wilson. “Because most places are only open 8 to 5. Last time I checked, crisis didn’t make an appointment.”
The divide has led to some fragmentation on an issue that is largely misunderstood.
“The entire reason we started a nonprofit and the No. 1 need was emergency housing,” said Executive Director Laura Ng. “It makes sense to move forward with the drop-in center.”
With organizations moving in separate directions, Zarana Patel,
Dreamcatcher Foundation communications leader, said the solution could be an umbrella organization. She added that ideally it would focus on cohesion, tracking individual group efforts and statistics in order to coordinate efforts between action and awareness.
“Those two can’t be prioritized in terms of one another,” Patel said. Back on Kingsbury Street, activists at the roundtable still struggle to choose what’s most important: an email campaign or long-term housing? Addressing sex trafficking alone or all human trafficking?
“I get frustrated that the conversation focuses on sex trafficking,” Ng said, “because I feel like when you tell people we all play a part in labor trafficking, that means we may have to give up Starbucks or Trader Joe’s, for at least a time, until their policies change.”
Across the table, one woman fiddles awkwardly with a Starbucks cup.