I recently had the great opportunity to join one of our professors and her class to visit Covenant House – Philadelphia. Covenant House is an organization that serves homeless youth – many of who have been victims of human trafficking and prostitution. Operating 24 hours a day, the shelter in Philadelphia has 51 beds and plenty of mats, should the need present itself to offer a safe haven for additional youth. On an annual basis, over 500 kids are served at this site, and it is their hope that the youth will take advantage of the programming to better themselves and keep themselves safe, out of harm’s way.
|Anti-Trafficking Shirt from Baguio City, Philippines|
Of course, that’s not always the conclusion of their stories – they are free to leave and sometimes they get caught up right in the situation they were in before.
One of the programs offered by Covenant House is in Street Outreach, in which they go out on the streets and have conversations with whoever they find that may be in great need of one of their services – food, shelter, clothing, a safe space – basic needs. Many times the youth they come in contact with are involved with prostitution and as a result, have to utilize a number of strategies to be careful when engaging in these conversations, especially since their pimp or “john” may be within a distance. The last thing they want to do is get the victim involved in an even greater conflict.
Also, trainings are essential. In many cases, trainings with hotel staff and maintenance workers are very much needed and conducted by the Covenant House staff because they are the ones on the front line every day, seeing who comes in and out of their doors. While we always have to be cautious about generalizing what a “trafficked” victim may look like, it is important to be aware and always alert.
|…Don’t act like you don’t see what’s going on, or not want to get involved…|
The staff shared stories of how one of the girls that found refuge in Covenant House, was trafficked. She connected with her friend from the South, stayed here locally in Pennsylvania with her son, was promised to be taken care of, and the next thing you know, she was trafficked more than 20 times. It was then that the Philadelphia Anti-Trafficking Coalition stepped in, got involved, and started to track down the perpetrators.
They then continued and shared a story of a younger girl around the age of 14, who worked at a nearby salon and her uncle took her to the doctor for a check-up because of medical issues. Turns out, she had numbers upon numbers of STDs and STIs. She was out there in the public every day, working in a salon during the day, in the view of everyone, but in the evening, she had another job that brought her those physical and mental wounds. The question is, “How come no one every wondered or asked why this young girl was not in school?” They stressed, trafficking victims may not always be so discreet…instead, there are victims that are everyday seen in the general public, and so we must train ourselves to be aware and to be alert to these realities that could literally be staring at us in the face. And the traffickers are not always strangers – they are sometimes in the victims’ families themselves.
Of course, this is not to say that we are to label and start dialing in on our phones when we see a 14-year old girl working in a restaurant on the weekend or what not… she could be the daughter of the owner! But, it is important to be aware.
This is not only a city problem in major cities like Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This is an everywhere problem, with one of the first cases of trafficking taking place in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Very local.
The average age of those entering prostitution is between 12-14 years old. 12-14 years old.
12 to 14 years old. Unreal.
And so, with this, it is my hope and desire that we continue to engage in these conversations, have these discussions with our peer groups and stop the demand for prostitution. It is not “cool” to be a pimp, and people are not commodities. This could be your sister, your daughter, your son, your brother. Because people can be used over and over and over again, it is a much more lucrative business than drugs and weapons. A $32 billion dollar industry. Wow.
Needless to say, I was left inspired once again by the efforts of Covenant House and saw that truly, we can each play a part in making a positive change in society. Let’s respect one another, not use one another, and try to build up, rather than tear down each other.
Looking forward to the day when we can sing songs of peace and speak out, rather than remain silent.