Red blight district

City council members voted unanimously to approve $285,000 in emergency funds for sheltering juvenile victims of sex trafficking.

City council members voted unanimously to approve $285,000 in emergency funds for sheltering juvenile victims of sex trafficking. The Nov. 10 vote provides funding for four two eight new beds in a shelter operated by Janus Youth Programs. This comes on the heels of a flurry of media coverage highlighting sex trafficking in Portland.

“This money allows us to immediately dedicate two staff members to be at the shelter 24 hours per day,” said Amy Trieu, who works on trafficking issues for City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

The shelter also gives residents access to a victim’s advocate from Portland’s Sexual Assault Resource Center.

“This shelter is a short-term solution,” Trieu said. “But we are working towards what those in the health care community call the continuum of care. This is triage, emergency care, but we are working towards more long-term solutions.”

While City Hall is developing these long-term solutions, most resources are presently being directed to short-term care for victims and punitive measures for offenders. Among these are a recent city ordinance allowing for the forfeiture of personal property that has been used to aid in sex trafficking, as well as proposed legislation for tougher penalties against those who facilitate the juvenile sex trade.

Saltzman is interested in requiring convicted sex slavers to register as sex offenders, as well as changing Oregon statute in order to make prostitutes less culpable than those who sell them into sexual congress.

Moshoula Capous-Desyllas, an instructor at the Portland State School of Social Work, has concerns that such measures, while important, may contribute to public confusion on two separate and very complex issues.

“Human trafficking is used interchangeably with diverse concepts, such as illegal immigration, modern slavery and prostitution, and the sexual exploitation of women,” she said. “I believe that there is a gap in our awareness of the contested definitions of sex trafficking.”

According to Capous-Desyllas, political and media focus on sex trafficking has had the effect of painting a sensational and vastly over-simplified portrait of what is, in reality, a complex global issue. She also expresses concern that not enough distinctions are being drawn between sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

“As long as sex work is confounded with sex trafficking, there will be a huge gap in our understanding of who and how individuals are kidnapped and abused for sexual purposes by criminals,” she said. “Statistics on the number of individuals who are trafficked is a feature present in most newspaper articles and government reports, yet the U.S. Department of State and others who provide statistics do not explain how these statistics were collected.”

When asked whether or not undocumented juveniles would be eligible for any of the four beds available at the sex trafficking victims shelter, Trieu said that no juvenile would be officially ineligible, but could not comment on how undocumented status might affect their standing with immigration officials.

“That’s a tricky issue,” Trieu said. “We have identified 120 to 130 girls in the Portland metro area, confirmed and otherwise, who are all U.S. citizens and victims of sex trafficking.”

According to Trieu, these statistics are based on information gathered from various sources, including the Department of Human Services and the Portland Police Department. She also said that while victims will be strongly encouraged to testify against their pimps, their eligibility for shelter space will not be contingent upon it.

“We want to meet the victim where she is,” Trieu said. “We think that the prosecutorial aspect of this is very important, but with what some of these girls go through, it can be a very subtle point to deal with. Some of these girls are scared to death, or just never, ever want to see this person again.”

City Hall is taking action by dealing with the local aspects of sex trafficking, but the extent to which the challenges of a global problem can be locally addressed remains to be seen.

“It is very unfortunate that a singular narrative is being reinforced in the media, serving to sensationalize and simplify a very complex issue in order to push certain agendas,” Capous-Desyllas said. “I don’t think that we can assume that everyone working the sex industry has been sexually enslaved. I also fear that a focus on trafficking carries underlying fears of illegal immigration into the U.S. under the guise of concern for human rights.”