This post was contributed by Dulcinea Cuellar, Divisional Director of Public Relations, Development at The Salvation Army Florida Divisional Headquarters
Julie Shematz was accustomed to using her body to make money. Being exploited was a way of life for her for several years.
Formerly an exotic dancer, Shematz is now the director of social services for The Salvation Army in Tampa. Today she helps other women, men and children find a way out of being trafficked and exploited.
Her story of exploitation, starting over and becoming a woman who helps others rebuild their lives is a story of God’s grace and redemption, she said.
Human trafficking is a story not everyone wants to hear or talk about.
Experts believe just talking about the problem is not enough and are calling for serious action in Tampa and around the globe.
An opportunity for hard conversations about human trafficking began when President Barack Obama designated January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in 2012. The designation brings awareness and urges all Americans to “help healthcare workers, airline flight crews, and other professionals better identify and provide assistance to victims of trafficking.” Additionally, the designation promises that the government will “combat human trafficking, prosecute the perpetrators, and help victims recover and rebuild their lives.”
In Florida, The Salvation Army, along with its partners, have hosted a series of workshops and summits all over the state to bring awareness to human trafficking.
There are more than 21 million people enslaved in the world today – more than at any other time in history. Human trafficking is a $32 billion dollar a year industry. It generates more revenue than Apple, Ford and Exxon annually.
Florida ranks number three in the nation for the amount of calls into the National Human Trafficking Hotline number. The hotline provides confidential counseling and helps to link victims and survivors with legal and social assistance.
Experts suggest the high volume of calls to the hotline is attributed to several things: the Interstate 4 corridor which connects east and west Florida, professional sports teams and a booming tourist industry. Tampa also hosts one the largest “adult” entertainment industries in the nation, which makes the state the “perfect storm” for traffickers and their victims.
Sex trafficking exists at legal establishments like strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors. Illegal brothels and street prostitution can also traffick individuals.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are more adult entertainment facilities than McDonald’s in the Tampa Bay area.
For people like Shematz, the numbers are no deterrent, as she is always motivated to help the next person find freedom and a new life, she said.
Shematz runs and operates one of the few safe houses in the area.
Running a safe house at a confidential location means providing more than a safe place – it provides an environment that is cozy, comfortable and conducive to restoration. The walls are decorated with inspirational messages, beds are attractively made, and the space feels welcoming, not institutional.
Since it opened last year, 28 people, including five men, have stayed at the shelter. The shelter is designed as an initial safe place available to clients before they move to a more long-term location.
Law enforcement and Department of Homeland Security officials, judges and community members refer trafficking victims to Shematz at The Salvation Army. Oftentimes, law enforcement will find people they suspect of being trafficking victims on the streets or in illicit businesses.
The safe house’s structure is transitional. It is meant to be a temporary solution – getting survivors off the streets and away from their trafficker. After being in a the safe house, clients work with case workers help survivors make a plan for the longer-term. The next step may be moving out on their own into apartments, rehabilitation programs or other shelters.
For Mary* (not her real name), a 32 year-old mother, meeting Shematz was a blessing.
A Tampa police officer found Mary and learned she was sometimes homeless and being exploited by a boyfriend. She was referred to Shematz and stayed in the safe house for a couple of months before transitioning into a more stable environment. The safe house may be temporary, but the support is unconditional.
“This place has been a real blessing,” Mary said. “I’m not sure what I would have done without it.”
The Salvation Army works with a network of community partners to help individuals are able to get temporary shelter and more long-term services and care when they are ready.
Shematz works closely with the Tampa Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, FREE: The Slavery Survival Network of over 100 community partners, and, of course, other facilities of The Salvation Army to provide clients the best resources available.
Dotti Groover-Skipper is The Salvation Army’s state-wide coordinator of anti-trafficking efforts. She encourages the development of strong practices in awareness and direct service efforts. She also serves on the Florida Legislative Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, an appointment made by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Groover-Skipper first became concerned about trafficking after encountering young women and girls who had been sexually exploited when she was an NFL cheerleader.
And although sexual trafficking may seem to be a more high-profile topic, she notes that labor trafficking is more prolific than sexual trafficking.
Labor traffickers force people to work against their will in many different industries and use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion. Victims of labor trafficking frequently work long hours for little or no pay and believe they have no other choice, but to continue working for that employer.
Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are 14.2 million people trapped in forced labor in industries including agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing.
Less common is trafficking in human organs.
The World Health Organization estimates that at least 10,000 sales of human organs are made each year. The practice is illegal in nearly every nation, including the United States.
Organ trafficking is a crime that occurs when traffickers force or deceive their victims into giving up an organ. In addition, there are instances where vulnerable persons are treated for an ailment, which may or may not exist, and organs are removed without the victim’s consent or knowledge. Those who are most likely to be victims of organ trafficking are the poor, migrant workers, homeless and the illiterate.