On a rainy, cold Saturday, more than 100 community members filled a Northwest Portland event hall for the Junior League of Portland’s first Human Trafficking Awareness Day Reception.
The event — which was held on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Jan. 11 — was designed to raise awareness around the complex and pervasive problem of human trafficking.
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who serves as chair of Multnomah County’s Sex Trafficking Collaborative, said trafficking affects almost every other aspect of the County’s work helping to protect vulnerable people.
Sex trafficking is disproportionately experienced by people of color, women and girls, LGBTQ+ people, and people experiencing poverty.
And youth who are caught up in sex trafficking often are also involved in the child welfare and criminal justice systems, and are also often experiencing houselessness, mental health and substance use issues, and disabling conditions.
“So when we talk about the most marginalized in our community this is really who you’ve been serving,” Jayapal said at the event.
With more than 650 members in the Portland-area, the Junior League promotes volunteerism, improving communities and developing the potential of women, said Gina Ambrose, president of the Junior League of Portland. As part of that mission, the organization hosts a decade-old committee, the “Stop Human Trafficking Task Force & Committee.”
And since 2009, some 1,049 suspected traffickers have been identified, and more than 1,000 individuals have been cited for purchasing sex, according to data released by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. An additional 97 have been charged with purchasing or luring a minor in the Portland metro area.
Still, Portland has one the highest rates of youth sex trafficking in the country. On Saturday, local experts spoke about the myths and realities of human trafficking.
“A lot of us when we think about sex trafficking, we think about that movie ‘Taken’ with Liam Neeson,” said Amy-Marie Merrell, director of The Cupcake Girls, a nonprofit that supports victims of trafficking. “Somebody grabbing somebody off the street then throwing them into the back of a car.”
Those cases happen, she said, but most cases in the Portland Metropolitan-area involve a different route to trafficking — by manipulation.
“When I joined the Multnomah County Commission, I asked for the assignment of chair of the Sex Trafficking Collaborative,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “Not because I had experience in the area — but because I ran in order to serve the most marginalized people in our community. People experiencing sex trafficking are most certainly among the most vulnerable.”
Former Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, who also attended Saturday’s event, established Multnomah County’s Sex Trafficking Collaborative in 2009.
“She understood that in order to tackle this problem we needed to bring together all of the entities and agencies involved in the work; that we couldn’t operate in silos,” Jayapal said.
That’s why the County collaborative consists of federal, state and local government agencies; nonprofit service providers; law enforcement agencies; and community justice and human services departments — as well as a larger network of groups including more than 400 people who collaborate to prevent and respond to sex trafficking.
In 2018, the County established the New Day Program. New Day, a partnership with New Avenues for Youth, Call to Safety and Raphael House of Portland, was designed to meet the unique needs of sex trafficking survivors ages 12 to 25, with a focus on communities of color and LGBTQ+ communities.
New Day reached capacity in just six months, with more than 200 youth engaging in services and more than 60 signing up for case management.
The program provides crisis line services; confidential advocacy; comprehensive case management; connections to housing; and prevention and education. It also recognizes the complicated and intersecting identities of survivors.
The program meets young people where they are at, “recognizing their complicated and intersecting identities — of race, gender, sexuality and more — and building the trust and relationships,” Jayapal said.
Read more about the impacts of the New Day Program and Multnomah County’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month Proclamation.
Saturday’s event kicked off the Junior League’s “Delicates Drive”, with a goal of collecting at least 10,000 new undergarments of any kind. The drive focuses on undergarments for those fleeing environments of harm. They are often asked to surrender these items as evidence and may not have the resources to purchase new ones. Learn more here.
“My call to action for all of you is to continue to do the work,” Jayapal said.
“To listen, to support, and to be guided by the perspectives of victims and survivors. They are why we do this work.”
For more information on Human Trafficking resources:
Call to Safety (503.235.5333)
24/7 crisis line for sex trafficking victims