By Rebecca Zoeller
Attorney, Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellow, Legal Services of North Florida, Inc.
Survive and Thrive Advocacy Center has been involved with issues relating to the intersections of human trafficking and homelessness since its inception. Homeless youth and adults, both male and female, are vulnerable to human trafficking. One study found that 19% – 40% of homeless youth and adults experience human trafficking.*
Individuals who are homeless lack resources and can feel isolated, have mental health issues or have addictions — these are vulnerabilities traffickers exploit.
Homeless at Risk for Human Trafficking
STAC’s Victim Assistance Coordinator, Graciela Marquina, spends time at The Kearney Center every week, offering support and services to homeless individuals who have survived trafficking, are current trafficking victims, or are at high risk of being trafficked. Graciela has had conversations with multiple residents of The Kearney Center who have expressed fear because a resident they knew disappeared unexpectedly and never returned. Graciela uses conversations like this to further educate homeless individuals on common recruitment tactics used by traffickers and will conduct safety planning with them as well.
Getting Businesses Involved
Graciela was inspired by these conversations to move beyond the work she does directly with the homeless population at The Kearny Center and get others involved in anti-human trafficking efforts related to this homeless population. At a recent meeting of the Big Bend Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Graciela asked for a volunteer task force member to assist her in educating businesses located close to The Kearney Center. These businesses have employees who can easily see out of their storefronts human traffickers approaching homeless individuals on sidewalks, in parking lots and around bus stops. Graciela wanted to encourage employees and business owners to report suspected trafficking activities. I thought this was a very practical idea and agreed to help visit businesses. I am an Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellow hosted by Legal Services of North Florida and my fellowship is focused on meeting the civil legal needs of human trafficking survivors.
Recognizing the Signs
A colleague and I armed ourselves with human trafficking hotline awareness sticky notes printed in Spanish and English, STAC’s information card and Legal Services of North Florida’s human trafficking brochure and went calling on businesses close to The Kearney Center. (STAC produces these bright yellow sticky notes with help from the Zonta Club of Tallahassee.) We looked for businesses that clearly had homeless individuals on or around the property. We visited nine businesses in total and briefly explained why homeless people are susceptible to trafficking, what it might look like when a trafficker is trying to recruit or coerce an individual to work with them, and how suspected trafficking can be reported anonymously to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. We visited two convenience stores, three bail bonds offices, a smoke shop, an electronics repair shop, a cellular phone store and a thrift shop. We left pads of hotline sticky notes and informational material at every business except one, a sole proprietor who did not want to get involved. Additionally, we put sticky notes up inside of three bus stop shelters and left materials inside as well.
Businesses Eager to Help
Because the two convenience stores had a steady flow of customers, we didn’t speak to the employees, and instead went into the restrooms to put up multiple hotline sticky notes and leave materials. Even though we just showed up uninvited during their workday, we were given warm receptions by six of the seven other businesses we visited. Business owners and employees showed an interest in our local human trafficking task force and our mission. They shared with us the types of potential trafficking activities they were seeing and expressed a desire to be part of the solution.
Making an Impact
I would like to acknowledge Goodwill Retail Store, Aloi and Fletcher Bail Bonds, Emmanuel Bail Bonds, BoostMobile and ASAP Smoke Shop whose owners, managers and/or staff were especially eager to be more informed and prepared to help with this community issue. At each business we visited, we were thanked for coming by and many thanked us for caring and for bringing awareness to this issue. The experience made believers out of my colleague and me; we know our efforts had an impact. I have let Graciela know that I will gladly accompany her to visit more of the businesses operating in the vicinity of The Kearney Center, and I hope many of you reading this will do the same. Thank you, STAC, for letting me help educate and equip our community businesses to fight human trafficking at Tallahassee’s ground zero.
If you would like to participate in human trafficking public awareness and education efforts, please email STAC@surviveandthriveadvocacy.org.
*Lisa Pilnik, Responding to Youth Homelessness, A Key Strategy for Preventing Human Trafficking, National Network For Youth (2018).