ATASCADERO — Human trafficking, an accurate if bland phrase, can like so many terms in modern life belie the true horror of human acts behind politically palatable language.
Often used in conjunction with the phrase coyote — the people smugglers — one may be tempted to believe the trafficked have signed up for the experience, seeking a better life in the United States. Many may have, at least initially agreed to take part, as there is very little in the nature of rational beings that would compel them to enter a journey or take up companionship with those who blatantly offer no hope or relief from desperation.
In all likelihood however, as the reader takes in this page there’s a young woman, or as San Luis Obispo County Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth points out, often a young man, who grew up in a neighborhood not too far from here, being taken through San Luis Obispo County as cargo.
The methods of control are psychological, economic, physical and violently coercitive, often leaving indelible marks on the body. Even, as Debra Brown, co-founder of the new Atascadero-based Home 4 Hope non-profit believes, leaving a mark on the intangible spirit of victims.
It’s an image at odds with the bucolic nature of the Central Coast, but Brown and the SLO County District Attorney's Office are holding out hope that the same attributes which make the County, “both a destination and a transit corridor” for trafficking will also make it an ideal place to recover.
Dobroth, who has had recent experience with two high-profile cases against human traffickers in northern San Luis Obispo County, explains, “when I worked in L.A. we used to be arresting the prostitutes and the ‘Johns.’ Since then, in the last 10 years, there’s been a complete paradigm shift in looking at the prostitutes as victims themselves.”
He adds that law enforcement, at least as far as he and District Attorney Dan Dow are involved, has tried to adapt with the times and recognize the realities on the ground.
“The name trafficking dose belie what it is but it’s also apt in that its like any kind of traffic,” he said. “We used to deal with brothels and massage parlors. The new paradigm is women and men now being moved through six to seven counties in a four month period.”
“You can imagine,” Dobroth added, “the tracking challenges for local police and on DA putting together a case.”
On top of that, victims themselves will often disclose their status to officers or someone they trust, then recount their testimony when pressure is brought to bear.
“The best help is to get them out of the situation and started on recovery immediately,” he said, although noting that himself, Brown and others trying to help, walk a fine line between disclosing how that’s done and the outreach that lets victims know help is available. “Safehouses [and recovery homes] are an invaluable tool in that effort...it gives [victims] a safe setting to restart their life.”
Debra Brown and her husband, Ron Brown, an ordained minister with the Atascadero Foursquare Church, have drafted the Mission Statement for the Home 4 Hope with four tenets:
Rescuing — immediate crisis placement at Home 4 Hope
Restoring — spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical well-being
Renewing — hope with a healthy, strategic direction for the future
Releasing — into a new life, free to live as God intends
Fittingly enough, they also believe they’ll be able to help four women at a time in a long-term group program.
“Most of the homes of this kind manage houses with six rooms and that’s what we’re looking for,” Debra Brown said, adding that two of the spaces would go to “onsite house moms” to establish a family environment and stability for the other residents.
Recently returned from mission work with impoverished communities in New Zealand, where prostitution has been largely decriminalized, Brown said their goals remain similar here.
Like the Central Coast, she said, community leaders in the island nation would rather focus on tourism and lush cinematic scenery for visitors, but similar social and economic problems persist under the surface.
“I got to know these women very well,” Brown said, “there are very few, if any, women that would tell you they got into [sex work] for fun...without some kind of coercion and exploitation.”
While the long-term, faith-based program won’t be for everyone, there are so few spaces of the kind available throughout the California, perhaps only 600 beds they estimate, that at least four candidates will be referred to the program by the County’s Victim Witness Assistance Center and by law enforcement.
Telephone interviews will be the first step toward screening for the housing slots, which will be free to trafficking victims, but they hope to have other counseling programs available as well.
“The people are here and ready to go,” Brown said. “But we don’t have the space and location. We don’t have furniture even yet.”
A golfing fundraiser is currently being organized for Home 4 Hope in Paso Robles for November.
Those seeking more information, can go online to home4hope-slo.org or email [email protected]