Orange’s human-trafficking crisis shelter at capacity
Accusations being taken more seriously in #MeToo climate
Orange County’s first crisis shelter for human-trafficking victims is full — and advocates say that’s a good thing.
It means vulnerable women are seeking and getting help now for a problem that many people had once doubted existed in Central Florida, said Tomas Lares, chairman of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force.
“I like to compare it to the whole ‘me, too’ movement,” he said, referring to the national push for social change that arose last year after public revelations detailing sexual harassment of women in Hollywood and elsewhere.
“Why did it take so long, so many years for people to admit this was happening? And when they finally did, we didn’t believe them. We said, ‘This can’t be happening in our community,’” Lares said. “But it was and is.”
Orange County commissioners were briefed this week on the progress of a taxpayer-funded pilot project intended to provide emergency services and short-term residential shelter to women rescued from sex-trade traffickers.
The shelter, the state’s first exclusively funded by taxpayers, opened in late January. The county has pledged nearly $2 million to the project, including $750,000 in the 2018-19
The 10-bed home, located at a confidential site to shield its residents, has no vacancies now, less than six months after opening, said Tracy Salem, manager of the county’s youth and family services division, which oversees the program. She said it has helped 25 women, providing them with a safe haven to get well and off drugs.
Most trafficking survivors stay about a month, Salem said.
Many are referred to the center by Orange County Jail staffers, who find possible victims while conducting assessments during the intake process for new inmates.
Others arrive at the shelter through Florida Abolitionist, the Winter Parkbased nonprofit group that advocates for trafficked victims and works with the multilingual National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline (888-373-7888) and the Florida Abuse Hotline (800-96-ABUSE.)
The Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, an inter-agency vice task force in Central Florida, looked into 52 complaints of human trafficking last year and arrested nine people, including Tyquarius Lebby, 24, charged with engaging in sexual activity with an underage girl and with human trafficking of a child for commercial sexual activity.
The latter felony charge carries a possible life prison sentence.
He has pleaded not guilty.
Acting on a tip in December, MBI agents found pictures of a 16-year-old girl in sexually suggestive poses in Orlando-area ads posted on a classified-advertising website, which was then shut down in April by federal law-enforcement authorities investigating allegations the internet site allowed users to post ads for sex services involving minors.
Agents then found the teen at an Orange Blossom Trail motel. Agents said she had a bruised eye, courtesy of Lebby, who had rented a room at the motel.
He told her, “You’re locked in now because I beat your ass,” an affidavit alleged.
Salem said 49 juveniles, including a 2-year-old, were rescued from trafficking situations in Orange County last year.
The toddler’s trafficker was a family member, she said.
The state Department of Children and Family Services typically provides care, services and shelter for juvenile victims.
The county’s crisis shelter serves adult female victims of trafficking.
Services include mentalhealth and substanceabuse counseling because trafficking survivors often are manipulated with heroin and other street drugs.
“This is, in essence, a starting point for these victims,” Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, an advocate for the county trafficking shelter, said Tuesday. “The true recovery takes many, many, many years. It’s a tough road for them.”
More than 300 cases of human trafficking were reported in Florida last year, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, putting the state behind only California and Texas.
Philip Toal, who works with trafficking survivors at the county’s crisis shelter, said the women need a safe place to heal.
“When we get a call, we can get a woman off the street instantaneously,” he said.
Toal said the shelter has a waiting list of 17 women.
Experts say Orlando’s tourist and transient population makes the region susceptible to traffickers, who often prey on poor and drug-addicted women and children.