Toward the end of 2017, teenagers across the Monterey Peninsula, including members of Carmel High School’s This Club Saves Lives, spent two consecutive weekends at a run-down house in Salinas, painting walls, organizing clothes and restoring the place as a whole. After four full days of restoration, the building was transformed into a human trafficking resource center.
“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery,” assistant district attorney Jeannine Pacioni says. “It involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial act.”
The Monterey County office of the Youth Women’s Christian Association propelled the opening of this resource center. The YWCA has two confidentially located safe houses in Monterey, one for victims of domestic violence and one for victims of human trafficking, both serving as long-term homes for people in need.
The resource center acts as a sort of market where trafficking victims are provided utilities, toiletries and even educational opportunities.
“The resource center is designed so all our clients can come and receive resources such as shampoo, conditioner, towels, sheets and the like,” YWCA volunteer coordinator Jamie Miller says. “Whatever they need, we try to supply.”
Last year, the YWCA held an intensive workshop about human trafficking victims and how to find them, attended by police officers, lawyers, doctors and social workers attended. Carmel High senior Coral Barrett, president of This Club Saves Lives, had the opportunity to attend the workshop as well.
“After learning about human trafficking, I wanted to do more than just be aware of it,” Barrett says, “so I talked to Jamie Miller and asked if there was anything more we could do. That’s when she told me that the YWCA had relocated their human trafficking safe house to a bigger space and had a vacant home.”
Through her conversations with Miller, the CHS senior brought together teenagers from all around the county to help restore the house. Although the site was decrepit at first, through the work of the students the house became a home.
“The place was dirty and disgusting when I came in at first,” CHS junior Aminah Khalil says, “but it was fun to clean the place up a bit by painting the walls. I knew that people would really benefit from having a place like this to go.”
The new resource center includes two bedrooms, where victims can stay temporarily before being transferred to the safe house. It also has a kitchen, so that victims can come and stalk up on pantry foods, and an office, intended to be a place where victims can work on completing a résumé or studying for a class. There also is a childcare room, specially designed by artists from Carmel High School, Pacific Grove High School and York School who painted purple geometric mountains as a representation of the Salinas Valley.
“We have drop-in child care,” Miller says. “So if somebody has to go on an interview, go to counseling or meet with a lawyer, they have somewhere to bring their child.”
In order to more accurately simulate the outside world, the center implements a currency based on positive actions and behaviors.
“We have this point system set up, so whenever a victim goes on an interview, completes a class or anything of that sort, they earn points and can spend them at the ‘clothing shop’ in the resource center so that they don’t feel like they’re taking stuff, rather earning it,” Barrett explains.
Now that the resource center is open and materials are being supplied, the next step to improving the facility is offering free classes to victims for stress relief and to teach them skills.
“We’re trying to get people to come teach at the house,” the high school philanthropist says. “They can use those talents in their job. At this point, a lot of them are so traumatized, so they can’t go out and get real jobs right now. If they learn crafts and are able to make things, they can sell them on Etsy and make a little money through that.”
Although human trafficking is thought of as a problem in less developed areas, it’s common on and around the Monterey Peninsula. In the past seven years, almost 100 reports of human trafficking in Monterey County have been filed to the district attorney’s office, and more than twice of all incidents go unreported.
Contrary to popular belief, YWCA coordinator Miller explains that Monterey County’s location in between California’s largest cities serves as a hotspot for human trafficking. Its large agricultural industry attracts labor trafficking and its luxurious events, such as the AT&T Pro-Am and Concours d’Elegance, attract sex trafficking.
“Human trafficking is often hidden in plain sight,” Pacioni says.
Often times, human trafficking is accompanied by a bevy of other problems. Experts note that many victims are forced to take drugs, so police officers see them as drug addicts rather than victims of a human trafficking ring, concluding police investigation without digging deeper into the problem. It’s up to outsiders, such as police officers and social workers, to recognize the human trafficking around them and report it.
The human trafficking resource center is in its third month of operation and is currently in full use, helping the lives of many who’ve been trafficked in the community.
If you see any evidence of human trafficking, it can be reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888.