A New Home Opens its Doors to Victims of Sex Trafficking
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A New Home Opens its Doors to Victims of Sex Trafficking

Women who have been trafficked often have few places to go, but that's slowly changing.

Safe housing options are crucial for people leaving sex trafficking. Photo by phocrastinating from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Safe housing options are crucial for people leaving sex trafficking. Photo by phocrastinating from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

If Casandra Diamond didn’t have a safe place to go in September 2004, she would likely still be working in the sex trade, not knowing a life without violence.

She had begun stripping about 10 years earlier, at the suggestion of a friend. She was 17. For Diamond, whose childhood included abuse and violence, it was a “lateral” move; these men paid her for sexual favours.

She met her pimp less than a year later and was with him for most of her time in the industry. They lived together for many years.

Eventually, he found another girl who could make him money. That’s when Diamond left.

“I couldn’t leave him,” she said. “He had to leave me.”

She moved in with a family she’d known since childhood. Unlike many women, Diamond never returned to the industry. She now provides counselling and peer support to women in similar situations.

Having a place to call home gave her the stability she needed to establish her life. “Without the housing piece, it wouldn’t have been a one-shot deal,” she said.

Her one-time exit makes her story “miraculous,” she said.

But new housing opportunities mean more options could be available to more women in Toronto, a city identified as a hub for all kinds of human trafficking.

Described by many as a modern-day form of slavery, human trafficking is considered one of the fastest-growing crimes worldwide. It involves recruiting, transporting, and harbouring a person, or controlling their movements, for exploitation. People are often trafficked for sex, but can also be trafficked for forced marriages or forced labour. (The largest trafficking bust in Canada involved forced labour.)

Women who have been trafficked have few places to go. Traffickers control their movements. City hostels and shelters for women fleeing violence may not have the supports trafficking survivors need. That’s changing.

Covenant House Toronto, one of the city’s oldest service agencies working with homeless youth, opened the Rogers Home last month. It’s not the only safe house for survivors of trafficking. Aurora House, a safe house for people who have experienced all forms of trafficking, opened in May. It’s run by a private, not-for-profit organization.

Rogers Home uniquely offers housing and life supports exclusively for female survivors of sex trafficking between the ages of 16 and 24. They can stay at the house for up to two years.

The renovated Victorian home, whose location is confidential to protect the residents, has private bedrooms for seven people.

“[What] we wanted to do was not create a treatment centre,” said Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House. “We wanted to create a place that was like home, that would feel like home.”

A house mother lives in the home, and trained workers provide support and counselling services for the women. Residents have access to other services provided by Covenant House.

Programs are individualized, said Rivers; some women may leave the house to access supports, while others may get their supports at the home. The program will be evaluated to ensure it’s providing what residents need. Covenant House plans to make what it learns available to other organizations through a free, online portal, Rivers said.

The reception has been positive.

“[I’m] so emotionally moved by it,” said Marcy Berg, the chair of the Women’s Initiative Committee of the Rotary Club of Toronto. The committee had the idea for the safe house and provided some funding for the project.

The City of Toronto also contributed more than $1 million for renovations, and Covenant House has a 21-year lease with Toronto Community Housing for the property. The City passed a plan to combat human trafficking in December 2013.

Berg describes the home, which includes an upstairs deck, exercise equipment, and space for the women to make art, as a “place of warmth, tranquility.”

“I know that Covenant House will be successful in this endeavour,” said Wendy Leaver, who spent more than 20 years investigating sex crimes with the Toronto Police Service.

When she was a police officer, there was no place where she could bring people who had been trafficked. “We just had no way to follow through and it would break my heart,” she said. Often, she’d go to Covenant House. Retired since 2012, she suggested the idea of a safe house to the Rotary Club and helped with their research.

But the house’s success won’t just be because of the expertise of the people working at it. The agency has a Sex Trafficking Advisory Committee. It’s spent two years reviewing similar houses across North America. The committee includes social workers, lawyers, and survivors of the sex trade, including Diamond.

The success is guaranteed because of the problem it’s addressing. There’s no way the house will stay empty. Since last October, Covenant House has had two shelter beds specifically reserved for people who have been trafficked. That’s unique; most shelter beds are filled on a first-come, first-serve basis. While exact numbers aren’t available, Rivers said the beds for trafficked women are occupied most nights.

“The scary part is that they’re going to run out of space,” said Detective David Correa with the human trafficking enforcement team at the Toronto Police Service.

Statistics may suggest human trafficking is increasing. As of early October, Toronto police report 63 arrests for trafficking this year, 412 charges laid, and 49 victims identified. Last year, there were 61 arrests, 463 charges, and 30 victims.

But there’s no scientific way to prove an increase, said Correa. The police have increased the number of officers dedicated to investigating these crimes. Up until a few years ago, the special victims unit only investigated incidents that involved sex workers.

The human trafficking unit has a much broader mandate, and more staff: 13 investigators and one detective-sergeant.

“I don’t think the problem has increased,” said Leaver. “I think it’s always been high.”

People may be becoming more aware of it—the Ontario government announced in June it will invest up to $72 million in a strategy to combat human trafficking. At the same time, internet and social media make it easier for predators to lure victims.

Human trafficking has been called the dark underbelly of globalization, said Karlee Sapoznik, acting president and co-founder of the Alliance Against Modern Slavery. But it’s not just an international crime. It’s domestic.

A June 2014 study from the AAMS (PDF) looked at 551 human trafficking cases from 2011 to 2013 that involved Ontario—people who were trafficked to, from, or through the province. It reported that 62.9 per cent of victims were Canadian; 90 per cent of those were female, and 63 per cent of those were between the ages of 15 and 24. Of that group, 18 per cent were 17.

Diamond always worked in the GTA, in licensed businesses.

“[I] lived in Canada all my life, shopped at our malls, ate at our restaurants,” she said. “But nobody knew, nobody helped.”

The sex industry isn’t glamorous, and it’s not a movie like Pretty Woman, said Diamond. It’s about power and control. She was a young woman whose past included abuse and whose future didn’t seem to have many options. “People just didn’t believe in me,” she said.

Her male customers often had average to above-average lives: jobs, wives, families, homes. There was this troubling “power dynamic,” she said. “I see people that were able to have choice in this life purchasing people who weren’t able to have choice in this life. That’s what I saw.”

For many traffickers, women are just another revenue stream, along with guns and drugs, said Correa. “There’s huge profit margins when you’re dealing with the sale of sex,” he said. One woman can earn $250,000 a year for her trafficker—and traffickers often exploit more than one woman.

Guns and drugs that have been trafficked can be contained once they’re taken in for evidence. But people move. Often, they relapse: they’re trauma-bonded with the trafficker, or they need money to pay for a drug addiction, or some combination of factors, said Correa.

People work in the sex industry for many reasons. For some, it is a choice they make of their own volition. Some don’t have any other options. Others are coerced into it.

In its 2014 report Sex Work in Canada (PDF), the Canadian Public Health Association states that efforts to end sex trafficking should be careful not to affect those who freely choose sex work as an occupation.

“When they make that decision to call it a day, we should have a place available immediately,” said Leaver, who would like to see more houses open in the city. “And I think that’s what we have. Here’s hoping that this one is just the beginning.”

When Diamond left the industry, she was fortunate to know a family who was already invested in her life. When things were rough at home before, she’d stayed at their house.

They were Christians with “a Bible in every room.” Diamond, who was raised Jewish, chose to convert to Christianity and credits that with helping her change. She also received professional counselling.

Fighting trafficking is like making a sandwich, she said. At the top, there needs to be laws in place to prosecute the traffickers. But there also needs to be support from the bottom.

Young people living in group homes and foster care are more likely to be trafficked, and they need more resources when they’re transitioning from the system. Youth need to be taught to think critically about gender stereotypes. Those supports make the bottom of the sandwich.

“We need to inform and help kids see that they have value,” Diamond said.