No one really knows how big the human sex trafficking problem is in Portland.
But everyone involved agrees on one thing. Girls and women who want to leave the sex trade often have no safe place to go.
In the next few years, attempts by some city leaders and law makers could change that.
Sen. Ron Wyden is pushing to get legislation passed in Congress that would give $900,000 to start a shelter for trafficked girls run by the YWCA in Portland. He's also the force behind a senate bill that would establish a grant program to distribute $50,000,000 across the country to law enforcement, social service organizations and municipalities for activities related to human trafficking.
Sgt. Doug Justus, a vice officer in Portland, speaking on the Oregon Public Broadcasting program "Think Out Loud," on Aug. 11, said he's met some of his biggest failures when trying to protect prostituted girls from pimps or their networks. One girl, who testified against her pimp in front of grand jury, went back to her mom's home in Washington. Now she has disappeared.
"I haven't heard or seen from her in months," he said. "I'm pretty sure he (the pimp) had her killed."
Under Wyden's proposed legislation, the National Crime Information Center database would receive $3,500,000 to better track information about sex trafficking. Despite heated rhetoric about Portland being the "Number 2" city for child prostitution, the real extent of the problem is unclear. The "Number 2' label came after an FBI sting netted 7 underage girls in 2008 and 4 underage girls in 2009, in addition to at least 29 adult prostitutes and eight pimps that year. And hard data is missing to back up the language in Wyden's legislation that claims sex trafficking is the "fastest-growing and second-largest, criminal enterprise in the world."
According to experts, such as Sheldon X. Zhang of the University of San Diego, the truth is we don't know just how many underage prostitutes exist in Portland or the Pacific Northwest.
"A review of literature on sex trafficking since 2000 reveals that numerous articles have been published in scholarly journals but few are based on systematic primary data collection," Zhang reports in the August 2009 edition of 'Global Crime'. "Much of our current knowledge, including statistical estimates and characteristics of the trafficking business, derives from a handful reports issued by government and non-government agencies."
Zhang's article reviewed all the available studies about human trafficking. His conclusion?
"With few empirical studies available, imagination seems to have filled the gaps of our knowledge. The problem was further complicated by a manifest (sometimes subtle) moral crusading agenda aimed at a deep-rooted and hotly debated social practice."
Spokesman for Sen. Wyden's office, Tom Towslee, says the bill could likely see changes as it is "marked up in the Senate Judiciary Committee" on Thursday, Aug. 5.
"It will likely be amended, although the goal will stay the same," he told The Skanner News.
One of the biggest challenges has nothing to do with its language or even its goal. It's the money needed, says Towslee. It's unclear where Sen. Wyden or other senators might reallocate or find additional money for this grant program.
A Comprehensive Approach
If Wyden's legislation is approved, it might help provide a template for future programs to help victims of sex trafficking. The bill aims to provide funding to pilot programs that address the problem in a comprehensive manner – by providing shelter to victims, law enforcement resources and additional resources to prosecutors. The bill – as it's written – requires that not less than 25 percent of a grant go to sheltering victims of human sex trafficking.
"It has to be a comprehensive approach or it won't work," Towslee said. "Without a safe place to stay and protection they need from the police … they will disappear into the night, often into the folds of the people who are victimizing them."
The proposed YWCA shelter will need another $3 to $5 million to start-up and stay afloat. That's in addition to any money Congress may approve.
Amy Trieu with Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office, says the city's Housing Bureau is about to begin a small pilot project of their own. Four to six women will be given a private residence in order to help them escape from prostitution beginning in the fall.
The program is based on a "Housing First" model, the idea that housing is an essential first step toward helping people stay out of trouble.
"Their housing is not contingent on reoffending, substance abuse or prostitution," Trieu said. "If a woman does get back into a bad situation, she still has a home to come back to."
This program gets to one of the core needs of women who have been prostituted, but it will not affect minors. Trieu says it appears we are still a few years away from being able to offer safe housing to homeless teens, who feel they have nowhere to go.
Sgt. Justus believes what's needed is a secure facility. He told OPB that it's essential to have a locked facility for girls who have been prostituted or are prostituting themselves. However Trieu says placing girls in a facility that they can't leave, presents problems of its own.
"You don't want girls to feel like criminals," she said.
But that may be the biggest conundrum of all. In Portland, both prostitutes and johns are charged with the exact same crime – prostitution. Advocates may work to label both adult and underage prostitutes as victims, but in the eyes of the law, the second underage trafficking victims turn 18, they become criminals.