Photo by Albert Cheung/Courtesy of Restore NYC
A nonprofit in New York City founded by a young social worker leverages a network of resources to provide aftercare and safe housing for women who are victims of sex trafficking.
March 13, 2012 | “To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ ... To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.”
-- Jean Vanier
When police from the 115th Precinct raided a brothel a few blocks from Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, N.Y., in January 2011, one of the prostitutes leapt from a second-story window, breaking her leg.
The Korean-born woman, along with others in the apartment, was arrested on charges of prostitution. It was a heartbreaking story, even to JudgeToko Serita, who has heard many of them. “This is the saddest case I’ve seen,” she said.
This desperate act might seem to be an isolated, arbitrary event in the life of a single woman, a misfortune created by a series of bad choices she could have avoided.
But her situation wasn’t simply a result of individual choice; this woman was the product of expansive, organized networks of international crime that enslave women into a life of prostitution, robbing them of all dignity -- physical, social, psychological, emotional, spiritual -- and even their vocational sense of worth.
“She was so ashamed, she’d rather risk the jump than the public humiliation,” said Stella, the woman’s counselor from Restore NYC -- a four-year-old nonprofit that seeks to help sex-trafficked women in New York City escape and establish new lives. (In order to insure the safety of their clients, Restore staff are identified only by first name.)
According to the United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, an estimated 700,000 to 4 million women and children are trafficked each year in the international sex trade, which is estimated to be a $7 billion annual business. New York is a major entry point and center of the trade in the United States; by some estimates, up to 18,000 people are trafficked into this country every year.
Faith Huckel, Restore NYC’s founder, created the organization in 2008 to combat the problem in New York. Employed as a social worker, she felt the winds of the Spirit blowing her in a new direction.
“I’d had a heart for this already. It was the Holy Spirit working as a perfect storm of passion,” said Huckel, 33, who was honored with the 2011 Classy Award as young nonprofit leader of the year.
Questions to consider:
- Restore relies on collaborations to reach its goals. Could you leverage partnerships to take on large initiatives?
- Long-term housing was not being offered in New York until Restore filled this need. What need could you fill that is not being met by other institutions?
Restore NYC’s approach is to leverage partnerships to help provide the network of services sex-trafficked women require. For an organization to help restore a woman’s sense of dignity after being enmeshed in a complex system of crime, it needs to be connected to social programs, government agencies and legal services, she said.
“No organization has everything,” she said. “The key has been to work in a collaborative network.”
Restore NYC has partnered with 22 organizations, including churches, social service and health care providers, the Queens Criminal Court Diversion to Incarceration program, the Department of Homeland Security and many other agencies, to serve more than 200 victims since 2009. (Although this number is tiny compared to the size of the problem, it's a success story in serving a population notoriously difficult to reach.)
Restore also has been able to achieve its goal of establishing a safe house, the first of its kind in New York City to offer long-term residence to foreign-born women.
But the organization seeks to do more than just help women prostitutes escape sex slavery. “We’re not setting them up to just survive,” she said, “but to thrive” -- a mission she admits has no “easy equation.”
Human dignity has no set formula. It’s not a problem to fix, a goal to strategize toward, a task to execute, an impact to measure. Dignity is fluid, human, fragile -- easy to destroy, less so to restore.
Sex trafficking and poverty
Hollywood films like “Pretty Woman” give a false picture of the world of prostitution, which is violent and desperate. “I hate that movie,” Huckel said. “It couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
The life of Restore client Maria (a pseudonym) is more typical. Born in rural Mexico, she was tricked into a marriage to a man who trafficked her up and down the East Coast for years.
She got pregnant twice and twice was forced to have an abortion; during her third pregnancy, she escaped to a hospital and had a baby girl, who was later sent to a cousin in Mexico. Maria was referred to a social service agency that then referred her to Restore.
When victims of sex trafficking first come to Restore, they have a range of responses. “Some are defiant; some are distrustful; some placate, saying, ‘OK, OK, OK,’ just going through the motions,” Huckel said. “And then there’s the blank, vacant stare. They’re looking at you, but no one’s behind their eyes.”
That was Maria when she arrived at the Restore safe house.
Although not every woman’s journey is the same, traffickers generally use a range of tactics -- passport confiscation, debt bondage, manipulation, forced marriage, violence and fraud -- to force women into sex slavery.
In New York City, brothels move locations throughout the city. They’re often in apartments, but sometimes spas serve as fronts. When law enforcement stages a raid, the women are arrested and treated as criminals, not as victims.
The result has both personal and social consequences. Foreign-born, undocumented women who speak little or no English enter the judicial system, often suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression or physical injuries. The women are poor and often homeless. Without aftercare services and -- more importantly -- safe housing, it’s likely that they will re-enter the sex trade.
Huckel first learned about this cycle of prostitution when she was employed as a social worker assisting at-risk mothers in Philadelphia, where she grew up and went to college.
“Working with these women, the conversations always started with, ‘How can you get me food stamps?’ But once we dug deeper into their lives, they’d open up about their pasts. Many women had endured atrocities -- abuse, rape.”
One woman admitted to prostituting herself to pay for her kids’ food and school supplies.
“That’s what first opened my eyes to what prostitution is -- a symptom of poverty,” Huckel said.
During graduate school at Columbia University, she focused her studies on human trafficking. She knew it existed in Southeast Asia and elsewhere internationally, but when her research revealed the crime’s pervasiveness in New York City, she was horrified.
“This sounds a bit naive,” she said, “but I had ideas of what it meant to be an American, standing up for justice, equality, liberty. … That women, not just from New York City, were being trafficked over trans-Atlantic means to work in brothels and in these crime rings blew my mind.”
Late one night in 2004, sitting at a kitchen table, she talked with two friends she’d met in New York about what they would do if they could change the world. “Safe housing for sex-trafficked women is what I dreamed of,” she said.
Three years after that conversation, Huckel launched Restore with a $17,000 grant and a laptop. She worked feverishly out of her apartment for a year, doing research, applying for grants, making connections with other service providers, building a network of relationships within state agencies, forming a board. At the time, there were very few models for serving this population the way she hoped to do it.
There were other service providers in the city for victims of sex trafficking, but none that offered long-term safe housing for victims. Huckel knew from her graduate research that victims were far more likely to re-enter the sex trade if they didn’t have a safe place to live. She wanted to design an organization that integrated key aftercare services with long-term housing and peer community. If she didn’t know how to do something, she either learned how or found someone who did.
But the project was still daunting. “I was a social worker: I developed programs; I worked with people. That was my comfort zone. I didn’t start organizations.”