We must help Hurricane Harvey’s other victims

Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

This time last month, Texans were flooding Facebook and Twitter with calls for help after #HurricaneHarvey, and rightfully so. The disaster devastated thousands of Houston families and their homes; we should support the victims. But in the rush to help, we cannot forget the city’s other victims: women and children trapped in Houston’s sex trade.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, victimization in the sex trafficking industry spikes following natural disasters as increased homelessness and despair create more vulnerability for traffickers to exploit. In the wake of the recent storm, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for efforts to prevent this increase, but awareness campaigns alone will not suffice. We need more resources to provide direct services to sex trafficking victims in Houston, the nation’s leading city for the criminal enterprise.

Before Hurricane Harvey, services for trafficking victims were already inadequate and underfunded. Sex trafficking victims need comprehensive support, including trauma-informed shelter and mental health, substance abuse, legal, educational and vocational services, in order to escape the industry. With 79,000 minors sold for sexual exploitation in Texas but only three sex trafficking shelters, the state’s inadequate support renders thousands of victims helpless.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, victim services have been jeopardized even further. Many of the few programs previously available suffered direct damage to their facilities. Houston’s Redeemed Ministries, one of Texas’ three sex trafficking shelters, had to evacuate its residents due to rising floodwaters. Elijah Rising, a Houston-based anti-trafficking organization, also suffered flooding.

But the storm hasn’t only damaged existing facilities -- it’s threatening the construction of much-needed shelters. The Refuge for DMST, an Austin-based organization that supports girls rescued from sex trafficking, is building The Refuge Ranch, a long-term, residential and therapeutic facility and foster placement agency for child sex trafficking victims. Construction is now in limbo as donors decide where their funding dollars are needed amidst the disaster. Steven Phenix, The Refuge’s public relations director, worries that the construction of the $6.5 million facility will be postponed as its 60 builders and suppliers are called away to rebuild the state.

Now more than ever, we must donate our time and money to support sex trafficking victims. The preventative measures proposed by Mayor Turner’s office are a valuable start, but we must increase funding to direct services for the rescue and restoration of these victims. By donating to the organizations listed below, we can make a difference in the lives of thousands of victimized women and children in Houston:

The social media frenzy following Hurricane Harvey helped thousands of people reach needed aid. Just as we have helped our neighbors rebuild their homes, we must help rebuild the lives that are too often forgotten in Houston’s sex trafficking industry.

Katie Watson

Manager at a residential treatment center for sex trafficking survivors