Human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern slavery in the United States, according to University of Richmond political science professor Monti Datta. But one local organization is dedicated to turning Central Virginia’s human trafficking victims into survivors.
Josh Bailey is the CEO and co-founder of The Gray Haven, a Richmond nonprofit organization that provides direct services to survivors of human trafficking and prepares them to reenter society.
The personalized program provides services ranging from medical care to job skills, personal mentoring, legal aid, shelter, clothing, food, family reunification and transportation, Bailey said.
“We don’t have program time limits because I feel that if we did, we would limit their ability to heal,” he said. “Each person is different.” The Gray Haven has had about 40 clients since it launched in February 2012.
“As the years go, the number of people identified keeps growing,” Bailey said.
In the past month and a half, The Gray Haven has received 12 referrals, Bailey said. They received the same number of referrals in their entire first year as an organization, he said.
It’s very difficult to tell how many people are actually trafficked in Virginia because of the underground nature of the business, Bailey said. Datta said the number of people being illegally trafficked within the United States was estimated anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000.
“The United States is not immune to this, just like any other country in the world today,” Datta said. With these numbers, Datta believes that there needs to be more organizations like The Gray Haven that work with survivors in reintegrating them into society, he said.
“Gray Haven is doing what they can and it’s a good start, but we need more,” Datta said. “We need more help, more awareness, more education.”
Bailey said he had been amazed at the stories from people in the program about where in Richmond human trafficking had occurred.
“It’s really in proximity,” Bailey said. “It’s not far, and it’s not just in certain neighborhoods.”
By the time The Gray Haven was launched in 2012, co-founders Josh Bailey and Andrea Valencia-Bailey were sure of the need for direct anti-trafficking support in the Richmond area, he said.
There are some awareness organizations around, Bailey said, but when The Gray Haven started, it was the only one providing direct care to survivors of trafficking in Central Virginia.
The organization uses the word survivor because it’s more empowering, Bailey said.
“We always strive for dignity for those we serve as opposed to labeling them as a victim,” he said.
Bethany Marcelle, a senior at Richmond and the president of Students Stopping the Trafficking of People (SSTOP), said she was always surprised that many people weren’t aware of the existence of human trafficking in Richmond.
Even those who know that prostitution occurs in major cities in the United States didn’t think the issue existed in Richmond because of the city’s size, she said.
Marcelle divided human trafficking in the Richmond area into three main groups: labor trafficking, domestic labor and sex trafficking.
Labor trafficking often involves illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. or came here illegally. Once they arrive, these people are sometimes forced to work for free under the threat of being turned in or pressured to pay back those who brought them over the border, Marcelle said. There is trafficking in restaurants, particularly in the South Side, she said.
Marcelle compared domestic labor to what is thought of as classic slavery, working and being kept without pay.
Much of human trafficking in Richmond looks like forced prostitution, Marcelle said. Restaurants selling women in their back rooms, nail salons or massage parlors offering what Marcelle called “a little something extra” and local pimps are some of the main sources of human sex trafficking in the area, Marcelle said. She wished not to share any specific businesses because of ongoing investigations.
“I will say that there are a lot of places that aren’t what they seem,” she said. “A lot of strip clubs aren’t just strip clubs… Restaurants aren’t just restaurants.”
SSTOP has two basic goals: educating people on campus about the issue of international and domestic human trafficking and connecting people with Richmond volunteering resources so that they may join the initiative to end human trafficking, Marcelle said.
The group has connected students with The Gray Haven, Richmond Justice Initiative and other groups that aren’t necessarily anti-trafficking organizations, such as Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT) and Youth Life.
These indirect programs are important, Marcelle said, because it has been shown that mentoring at-risk children can decrease a girl’s chance of becoming trafficked and a boy’s chance of becoming a pimp.
“We see that as a very important way of preventing human trafficking,” she said.
Marcelle urged Richmond students to become active observers in the community. She spoke of a friend in Wheaton, Ill., who called the National Human Trafficking Hotline about a situation in a coffee shop that didn’t seem quite right. The call resulted in a human trafficking case in which a girl was rescued and her trafficker was jailed, Marcelle said.
“You really can make a difference,” she said. “This can be stopped and it can be stopped right here in Richmond.”
Contact staff writer Kylie McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org