On a typical night during a typical week, staff and volunteers at Alternatives for Girls pile into vans, driving around Detroit on a mission to connect with human trafficking victims on the streets. The 33-year-old nonprofit provides housing and meals for up to 24 homeless women between the ages of 15 and 21, along with their children, and offers outreach and support to victims of human trafficking, hosts a weekly group meeting for trafficking survivors, and provides other essential services. Over the years, the organization has become a lifeline for many young women trapped in dire circumstances.
A little over a month ago, though, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and Detroit emerged as a hot spot in the U.S., everything changed at AFG.
“If you had told me that the majority of our staff would be armed with laptops and headsets [due to a pandemic], I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Celia Thomas, chief operating officer of AFG, adding that COVID-19 has forced her team to get “very creative” in the ways they continue to offer services for vulnerable women in Detroit.
According to statistics collected by the Polaris Project, the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 383 cases of human trafficking involving 863 victims in Michigan in 2018. Data maps from the same analysis point to Detroit as a hot spot for cases in the state. Because problems like human trafficking — which involves the use of force or coercion, typically for labor or commercial sex — and homelessness don’t stop during a pandemic, Thomas says AFG is “still open and actively engaged in the work that all the departments are [normally] involved in.”
The pandemic has created challenges for local human trafficking organizations to continue providing services to one of the city’s most vulnerable populations amid increased demand with fewer resources. But from more street outreach to a technology initiative amid increased online use, advocates are finding a way to meet people where they are.
In response to statewide shelter-in-place orders and physical distancing guidelines, Thomas says AFG is now temporarily divided into two teams — one working from home to provide virtual services by phone, text, and social media, and the other working on-site in round-the-clock shifts to provide essential services like meals, crisis support, and safe shelter.
Alternatives for Girls employees packing kits for AFG's Crisis Resource Center for distribution on the streets and for walk-ins.
While not all of the women in AFG’s housing program come from trafficking situations, Thomas says, “We've not seen a drop-off in the numbers of girls or services that we provide. Some of what we're seeing, actually, is an uptick of girls coming in.”
Thomas says the uncertainty of the pandemic has created unique challenges for women in vulnerable circumstances, and she is concerned about victims having to shelter in place with their abusers or traffickers — something she says AFG has seen at least one instance of during the pandemic.
Laura*, a survivor who joined AFG’s program for trafficking victims last year, echoes Thomas’ concerns. “The pandemic has been really rough on everyone, of course. When you’re struggling to get out of that life, this type of thing can easily throw you back into it,” she says, explaining that financial hardships can sometimes drive survivors back into trafficking situations because of the need for basic necessities like food and shelter.
“I’ve been holding steady,” Laura says. “As far as I can tell, everyone else [in the program] has been, too. [The pandemic] has touched all of our lives, but everyone is still hanging in there so far.”
After leaving her home in Michigan at a young age, Laura says she was trafficked between here and Ohio. After a brief respite in Ohio, a series of tornadoes over Memorial Day weekend last year destroyed the apartment building she was living in, leaving her homeless again. She says the situation drew her back into the cycle of being trafficked.
Last August, Laura returned to Michigan after her aunt told her she could get help here. In Detroit, she was introduced to AFG’s program by one of the nonprofit’s coordinators. “Nobody ever offered anything like Alternatives for Girls to me,” she says. “So when I got here, I joined the program.”
Since then, AFG has assisted Laura with food, clothing, necessities, and connected her to an occupational training program. Although Laura was ultimately unable to start the job she had trained for due to a medical disability, she says she’s thankful for the opportunities provided by the program, adding that AFG also recently offered Laura support with finding permanent housing.
Throughout the pandemic, Laura says AFG’s continued support has been helpful. “They still give us counseling and we still have our Sister Circle on Tuesdays over the phone. They’re still working with us, even with all the limitations [imposed by the pandemic],” she says. “I've never had a program like this in my life — and it’s so amazing.”
Some still on the streets
Although a number of resources have been available to human trafficking victims and homeless people in Detroit throughout the pandemic, not everyone has been able to access them in time.
“Now that we're into quarantine for so long, the anxiety is extremely high. The desire right now to get off the street is really high because of what's going on — but there’s nowhere for people to go,” says Deb Ellinger, founder and executive director of Elli’s House. She says many of the city’s shelters and drug treatment programs filled up due to the pandemic and, as a result, some weren’t able to get off the street in time.
A former police officer, Ellinger founded the nonprofit in the neighborhood where she grew up on Detroit’s east side after working with runaway teenage girls and noticing the need for help on the streets. The organization provides direct street outreach including food and necessities, and offers a two-year rent-free housing program for trafficking victims in Detroit.
“We’re seeing higher numbers on the street, and the need for more food and hygiene [products] because a lot of the stores in the city are closed right now,” Ellinger says. “If they are open, … what they have on their shelves is even more limited than what you would see in the suburbs.”
Deb Ellinger, founder of Elli's House
Ellinger believes part of the increased need stems from decreased activity in the city. “A lot of [homeless people] will panhandle and get money that way,” she explains. “But there’s none of that going on. There’s just less traffic. The needs are even greater because of that.”
The pandemic has also affected how Elli’s House provides services, Ellinger says. “Usually, when we go out on street outreach, we have five or six people in the car. Everybody kind of has a job to do, for safety reasons, but it also makes the process of providing food and clothing and hygiene [items] a lot more efficient. So, we're not able to do that right now,” she says. Instead, outreach efforts have been limited to Ellinger and her husband, who now go out “four or five days a week” — twice as often as usual — in order to meet the increased demand for necessities.
Ellinger points out that it’s the job of people and organizations to take ownership for their communities. She says she hopes to see Detroit’s neglected neighborhoods improve over time, adding, “I just want to encourage people to not forget the parts of Detroit where residents are living and can't survive.”
Detroit’s legal system working for survivors
In the effort to help victims of human trafficking, services like food and emergency housing are only half the battle. During the course of their trafficking, victims are forced to participate in illegal activities against their will. In spite of being victims themselves, they are often arrested and charged with crimes like prostitution, shoplifting, and drug-related offenses. Because of those arrests, survivors often face significant legal obstacles while attempting to establish normal, independent lives after securing freedom from their traffickers.
According to a 2015 survey (PDF) of survivors conducted by the National Survivor Network, a survivor-led anti-trafficking organization with members in over 40 states including Michigan, 57.6% of respondents had difficulty securing housing, 72.7% experienced obstacles obtaining employment, and nearly 17% reported barriers to accessing education because of their past criminal records.
Survivors’ legal needs are as unique as the survivors, says Nate Knapper, a former assistant attorney general with the Michigan Department of Attorney General who now works in federal law enforcement. Knapper founded The Joseph Project in 2018 with a mission of connecting trafficking survivors to pro bono legal services. Although the organization assists survivors across the state, Knapper says the overwhelming majority of cases they assess were trafficked in and around Detroit and are resolved in the city’s court system.
In spite of the challenges created by the pandemic, Knapper says Detroit’s legal system is succeeding in helping survivors. “Even in the midst of crisis, arrest warrants are being recalled, charges are being dismissed, and fines are being waived,” he says. “Consequently, despite recent shelter-in-place orders, survivors are experiencing new levels of freedom that were previously inaccessible to them.”
Knapper points out that the pandemic has severely impacted the legal community itself but says they continue to serve without compensation. “This is an increasingly selfless act for these attorneys who are volunteering because, due to the very serious economic consequences of COVID-19, many law firms are experiencing economic hardship. They’re losing clients, business is drying up, they're having to lay off associates,” he says.
Nate Knapper, founder of The Joseph Project
While it’s still too early to know the full impact of COVID-19 on cases of human trafficking in Detroit, Knapper points out that “it has always been the case that vulnerability leads to victimization.” A particular point of concern is the vulnerability created by technology. “It's important to recognize, first, that exploitation occurs online. And because of that, we need to be much more careful and guarded given that our technological use has increased exponentially during this COVID-19 crisis,” Knapper says.
Recently, The Joseph Project launched a new initiative called Digital Citizenship, with a focus on educating families about the link between the internet and human trafficking. While the idea of trafficking often brings to mind images of people being kidnapped, Knapper says those situations are the exception and not the rule in the U.S. Instead, he says, “What we see much more of is exploitation that originates through a grooming process that takes place online.”
Knapper says the safe use of technology is important in fighting human trafficking. “If you can educate people about not only the benefits, but also some of the risks and dangers of navigating the online space,” he says. “Then you can bring them a far ways down the road toward safeguarding themselves against exploitation.”
*Name has been changed to protect the victim’s identity.