The underground world of human trafficking, be it sexual exploitation or forced labor, is more widespread and pervasive in the Rochester area than many people realize. The solution is out there too, but it's just as evasive.
That's according to people working to combat human trafficking who spoke Saturday during an event to raise awareness about the issue. The event was coordinated by the Sisters of Saint Francis at Assisi Heights.
"The problem is bigger than what we can show through arrests," said an undercover police officer with the Rochester Police Department's Street Crime Unit. He noted that some of the Johns investigated contact 15 to 20 women a week. Because of the officer's line of work, his name cannot be published.
Among the challenges police face is getting the cooperation of sex trafficking victims who've been convinced by their traffickers to distrust authority, especially police.
Another main challenge is a lack of resources, such as time and money, to address the needs of victims.
While Victim Services can provide successful intervention of trafficking, "there is zero funding for prevention for Victim Services in Minnesota," said Kristen Barry, victim advocate and volunteer coordinator for Olmsted County Victim Services, said.
Mission 21, a small, nonprofit Rochester organization that serves child victims of sex trafficking, also has difficulty finding funding, and instead relies on individual donations, said co-founder Stephanie Holt.
There are only two beds allocated for child victims in the state, where on an average weekend 45 girls younger than 18 are exploited in Minnesota, Holt said.
And while Mission 21 is working to provide a safe house for victims ages 15 and younger, the operating cost would be $500,000 annually, she said, noting that they can't do so without sustainable funding.
Personal bias, however, seems to be the overarching challenge that all of the organizations face.
"We've got songs like 'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp' that win Oscars (from the movie 'Hustle & Flow') and movies that portray victims as strong, bold people that love this line of work," said Stacy Jewell Lewis, one of two survivors of human trafficking that traveled from Washington, D.C., to give presentations in Rochester. Both she and Shamere McKenzie were forced into prostitution.
Part of the issue is combating a society that promotes sex trafficking as positive, Lewis said. There's also a need to overcome the lies and misconceptions that prostitution is a choice and that victims are only children, not the 53-year-old woman that was trafficked since she was 15, she said.
Among the audience members were a group of Mayo Medical School students who were using the seminars as training. The students will be working through REACH at the Salvation Army's Good Samaritan Clinic to provide victims of human trafficking free medical services.
The idea for a clinic came after a presentation on sex trafficking given last year by prosecutors and law enforcement, after which medical students asked what they could do to help, said Swathi Damodaran, who is one of three students leading the clinic project.
Everybody at the seminar was asked to do what they can to stop the problem, which affects just about every aspect of society, and especially to continue to get educated.
Saturday's "Breaking the Chains of Modern Day Slavery" event was part of a series to coincide with Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January, which was proclaimed nationally by President Obama and locally by Mayor Ardell Brede. The Sister's focus on combating human trafficking, however, won't end at the end of the month.
Follow-up events include a fund- and awareness-raising concert in March and presentations planned for May.