Some were picked up as teenage runaways looking for a way out of volatile homes.
Others got hooked on drugs and did whatever it took to finance their addictions, even if it meant selling their bodies.
Sex trafficking is going on right here in Michigan, perhaps even in your own community. Watch this animated documentary by Mike Thompson. (Mike Thompson)
Still others fled their native countries seeking opportunity in the land of the free, only to find themselves trapped in jobs filled with false promises and little pay, threatened with deportation if they complained or tried to leave.
The stories of how they got there are all different. But if there's one thing that's true about most survivors of human trafficking, it's this: Escaping isn't as simple as walking away.
Edee Franklin of Huntington Woods describes human trafficking as a snare of tiny strings that pulls victims back again and again.
One by one, she's trying to snip those strings to free women who want to get out, but have yet to find a way because they don't have a safe place to live or are without access to drug or alcohol rehab, financial security, job training or an education.
Franklin is doing it with Sanctum House, the first human trafficking shelter of its kind in southeastern Michigan.
"There are women out there right now that are being raped and brutalized and they are saying, 'Dear God, get me out of this.' And there’s a place for them. They just don’t know it yet," Franklin said.
"Somebody is going to say to them — whether it’s at the jail or the ER or the judge — somebody is going to say: 'Well, you can go to a three-night shelter or you can go to jail or you can go to a detox for three weeks. You can go back to your pimp, you can go to the streets or to your abusive family or you can go to Sanctum House if you would like to change your life. If you would like to live a transformed life, you can go to Sanctum House for two years.'
"They will come here, and hopefully they will stay."
Each survivor who comes to live at Sanctum House will enter a two-year program that includes drug and alcohol rehabilitation as well as education, counseling, job training and support.
As many as 95% of the women who've been trafficked are drug addicted, Franklin said, so treatment for addiction is an important part of the program.
"We’d like them to say, 'I’d like to change my life. I’m tired of it.' We hope that it will take the first time, and that they won’t have to relapse."
Seeking someone who cares
It'll be a safe haven for women like Deborah, whose own trafficking story began when she was just 13 years old at the Jackson County Fair.
Deborah's mother was a drug addict and disappeared when her daughter was 10. Her father was an alcoholic and was overwhelmed by the sudden plunge into single parenthood. She and her brothers were placed in foster care, shifting from house to house.
Hopelessness took root. One of her foster parents confirmed Deborah's biggest fear: that she didn't care about Deborah and didn't love her.
"For me, that was really devastating because all I really wanted was someone to care about me," said Deborah, who is now 51 and living independently in metro Detroit as a peer-to-peer counselor for human trafficking survivors. The Free Press has agreed not to use her full name.
Feeling unwanted, vulnerable and alone, Deborah tried to make a hodgepodge family of her own.
"I went to the fair," she said. "My intentions were to leave with the fair. I thought that on TV, you see the bearded woman or the stretch guy. You know, they were different, but they were a family. So my intention that day was to find those people and be a part of their family.
"I felt like that’s where I would fit in. I was different."
She didn't find circus people at the fair. Instead, she bumped into a young man she'd never seen before. He bought her a hot dog, listened to her, and showed her a level of kindness that Deborah had rarely seen in her young life.
He drove her around town, and gave Deborah alcohol. He took her to Detroit for the night, and put her up at a motel on 8 Mile. The next day, he took her back to Jackson and gave her an hour to decide whether she'd like to stay with him or return to foster care.
She chose him.
"At that point, I still didn’t know what his intentions were," she said. "I was a virgin at the time, so I had sex with him. ... The next night, he took me to the establishment, which was called the Crestwood, and I went to work."
That's how Deborah got drawn into having sex for money arranged by a pimp, the only adult who had ever cared for her.
"Within the first week, I seen him physically assault a girl. Well, I didn’t see him assault her, but when he brought her back down, he said, 'If any of you try to leave me, the same thing will happen to you.' I had heard the girl screaming. When he brought her down and she was beat up, the message was to all of us that you’re not going to walk away from here, you’re going to crawl.
"I had never seen anything like that, and so I tried to be on my best behavior so I wouldn’t get in trouble."
Lifestyle that becomes an addiction
For decades, Deborah followed her pimp from 8 Mile to Washington, D.C., to New York and Las Vegas, and all over the country where there were major events laced with Johns. She was arrested, repeatedly.
She remembers clearly the first time police took her in. She was 14. Because she was a child, Deborah was taken to a juvenile detention center in Detroit.
"The only person who could come get me was my dad," she said. "And he was told that I was in an area of prostitution and drugs. I don’t know if it was because he was ashamed or because he just didn’t really care, but he said he wasn’t coming to get me. He said that he wasn’t going to lose time from work to come and get me.
"And so I sat there for almost two weeks."
Her father finally showed up. But instead of taking her home to Jackson, her dad drove her back to her pimp.
"He dropped me off at the house of the person who was trafficking me," Deborah said. "And that person paid him what he would have made at work that day, which was about 80 bucks, and then my dad left.
Her pimp said: " 'I told you that nobody else cared about you but me.' It just validated everything that he had been saying to me."
She remembers trying to run away. It was after a night of hooking at a hotel near Metro Airport. Deborah knew she hadn't made enough cash to satisfy her pimp.
"I called him and ... he told me that when I got home that night, I was going to have trouble," Deborah said. "I just assumed I would get beat up when I got home, so I didn’t go home. Instead, I got on a plane and I flew to Washington, D.C. Two days after I got to Washington, he showed up, caught me on a stroll and beat me up there and then took me back to Detroit.
"When they say, 'I can find you wherever you go,' you have to believe that. Especially when they show up and find you in another state.' "
Deborah started using cocaine as a way to escape. Soon, it spiraled into a crack addiction.
"When I got high, I didn’t care anymore about how you treated me," she said. "I didn’t care. It became a coping mechanism.
"I ran off to get high. It just became more important" than anything else in her life.
She ran away from her pimp a couple more times, but, she said, "He caught me. He would take me back home, but I would leave again because I wanted to get high."
Eventually, her pimp went to prison.
"The FBI came to me ... and asked me, did (I) know him? And how did I know him? Was I one of his prostitutes?
"I lied. I said, 'Nope. He’s never forced me to do anything. I was doing this before I met him, will continue to do it when he’s gone, blah, blah.' "
Deborah lied, she said, "because I cared about him. I didn’t want to see him in trouble. He got 18 years."
It was then, she said, that she was at the lowest point in her life. She went to prison, too.
"I was really at the bottom of the barrel," she said. "It was full-blown addiction by that time. Up until then, I was still working the streets because that’s all I knew. I was 37 years old, something like that, and I was still working the streets.
"I had never held a job. I didn’t have any education. I stopped going to school in 8th grade. That was the only way I knew how to survive or take care of myself.
When I was in prison, I had time to think about what I was doing to myself, and to my life.
"I had three kids while I was out there in addiction. I thought about what I was doing to my kids what my mother did to me. And so I decided that I wanted to make some changes but I didn’t know how to do it."
At that time, there were no housing programs to help women like Deborah.
"I was always looked at as a criminal," she said. "I was never looked at as a victim. There was no programs. It was difficult to stay out of that lifestyle because it’s almost like an addiction in itself.
"That’s why Sanctum House is so important."
From at-risk to safe house founder
Franklin first began to dream about Sanctum house four years ago.
"I believe that everybody, when they try to do anything in their life, they look back into their own lifetime experience," she said. "I was a woman at risk."
She started drinking when she was young, and was in an unhappy marriage.
"I was working on my master's degree on Wayne State’s campus and everybody was a hippie. I thought, 'I could do this.' You know?"
She tried marijuana, which led her to heroin. Franklin divorced her husband and fell for a drug dealer.
"I was with him six or seven years, a long time," she said. "I got out because I got arrested, and I was facing prison time. I was like 'Wake up! You’re going to go to jail. That’s not good.' I had already been arrested a few times, so I was already a convicted felon.
"I got remanded by the court to stay in a facility until I was graduated. And I thought, 'Well, you can’t leave. You have to do this.' So I just did it. I really didn’t have a choice to do it.
"The only way out is through. If you don’t face the pain and address the pain and what’s really wrong and be honest with yourself, you’re never going to change."
She's been clean for 30 years, and is now a real estate broker. Franklin has sponsored many other women suffering from addiction.
Once the idea for Sanctum House came to her, Franklin worked every day toward making it happen.
"I started to learn, and I joined task forces and I went to conferences and I did all these different things so I could become educated, see what was missing and do the best I could do," Franklin said. "I came to find out there are less than 20 beds around the state of Michigan for long-term treatment of survivors of human trafficking. There’s less than 500 beds in the country."
She found an ally in Karen Moore, a retired Ford Motor Co. executive, who joined her as the executive director of Sanctum House. They applied for grants and were awarded a $675,000 grant over three years from the Office on Trafficking in Persons through the Department of Health and Human Services.
They found a safe house that can sleep as many as 16 women — two to a room — with a large kitchen, two sets of washers and dryers and plenty of common areas for socializing.
More donations started to roll in. The Sisters of Mercy gave them nearly $30,000. And they got a $50,000 challenge grant this year from the A.A Van Elslander Foundation.
And yet, Franklin estimates the annual operating cost of Sanctum House to be about $560,000 a year for sustainability and program growth.
Donations and volunteers are vital. Moore and Franklin have already lined up dozens of community partners to help them in their mission.
Trinity Health has offered to provide medical care for the women. Visiting nurses from the University of Detroit Mercy and Oakland University come to the house weekly to provide additional services to residents.
Detroit's Mercy Education Project is to work with Sanctum House to assess the women's educational needs, helping them work toward obtaining their general education diploma (GED).
"The outpouring of support from the community is incredible," Moore said. "We have a social worker who is experienced with this population; she’s giving us one day a week. So every Thursday, she’s going to take the women to a therapy appointment."
"At the same time, we’ll be getting them employment. Some of these women can have quite long records, felonies, so we are working with organizations that will provide them with an opportunity for employment."
"So if they want to be an engineer or a nurse or psychology, we’ll help them get to school. We will provide that for them."
In addition, Sanctum House employees and volunteers will teach survivors life skills like how to do laundry, how to cook, clean, balance a checkbook, shop for groceries and more.
"It's all those life skills that were never learned," Moore said. "Those are things you learn because you’re at home with your mom and dad. These women maybe missed out on that.
"The goal is not to save them, but to provide them with the life skills and the tools to be independent on their own through education, physical and mental health."
'I just assumed I would die out there'
It took Deborah years to leave behind the only life she ever knew.
"I was able to stay clean off drugs, but I still continued to engage in risky behavior, working on the streets," she said. "I worked on getting my own place through the means of prostitution. And then, I was able to get my kids back, and I realized I needed some help."
She enrolled in community mental health services through Oakland County and started therapy to try to break the bonds that still connected her to her pimp.
"There, I was able to talk about the trauma, the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), work on regulating my emotions, and not allowing him to have so much control over me," Deborah said.
"Even though he was out of my life, he still had a lot of control. It took three years of one-on-one therapy. ... They talked about Stockholm syndrome because I would protect him — and today I still would protect him — because there’s that emotional connection. Even though it wasn’t good, he like raised me. You have kids who have bad parents but they still love their parents. That’s the only way I can explain it."
She had difficulty showing love for her children.
"I used to have a hard time hugging my kids and saying I love you because every time I had human touch before, it was always a transaction," Deborah said, "or somebody getting something from me. And so it was hard for me to ever hug my kids and say I love you. It just didn’t feel right."
Group therapy helped her see her value as a mother and to other survivors.
"A lot of the girls were like, 'Man, I want you to be my therapist. Like you know so much.' I found out they had positions for people who had experience," Deborah said. "So I could be a peer-support specialist.
"I applied for a position and got a job using my lived experience to be able to help people who were giving up on life or felt hopeless or didn’t feel like their life was ever going to get any better. ... And I did that and found that I was good at it."
She opened her own company, and now is a contractor with the state of Michigan, training others to be peer-support specialists.
"My life is totally different than I ever would have thought it would be the way it is right now," Deborah said. "I just assumed I would die out there because that’s all I knew."
Hope for tomorrow
Deborah said she'll be at Sanctum House three days a week, if it's needed, to help the survivors with peer support counseling.
"So when these women come off the streets, a lot of times they'll use that, 'You don’t understand what it is that I’ve been through.' I can say, 'Oh, no. I do understand what it is that you’ve been through. I might not have exactly the same experience, right? But I can relate to what it is that you’re feeling.'
"A lot of times these women are going to need all different types of support. And a lot of people are going to be cheerleading them on to do the right thing. But what they really want to hear is not that you can do it. But they want to hear this is what happened to me when I was where you’re at now. And this is what I was feeling. I was scared, too.
"I was afraid I was not going to succeed, you know? But by talking about what I did, and saying what I did might not work for you, but you don’t have to be alone, it gives me an opportunity to build trust with them a lot faster. It allows me ... to build them up."
Franklin hopes to have the certificate of occupancy to open before the end of the year because the problem is big, and she knows there are women who need help now.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that so far this year, there have been 136 possible cases reported to the hotline in Michigan alone. The majority —109 of those 136 cases — involved allegations of sex trafficking.
But Jane White, executive director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, said it's impossible to know just how many people are suffering in Michigan right now in a trafficking situation.
"If you look carefully, those are reported cases," White said. "Reported cases has nothing to do with actual cases. Congress needs to fund the national hotline so we can determine whether those cases were actual cases and not just reported cases.
"In the last three weeks we’ve had cases reported from people who were generally concerned but they were erroneous."
Franklin said that though there aren't reliable statistics about how prevalent trafficking is, "what we do know is that it's a growing problem."
Oakland County Sheriff's Department Lt. Wendy Reyes said one of the biggest obstacles is being overcome by Sanctum House.
"The main problem is housing for adult women," she said, noting that there are programs like Vista Maria that can help girls and teens who've been trafficked.
"I have always had a problem with placement," Reyes said. "I had a situation where we had a 24-year-old young woman who was being trafficked and she also was addicted to heroin. She begged that she wanted to get out, and every place I called to get her help, there was really no place to help her. It was very frustrating.
"My choices were to either take her back to her trafficker, the street or her mother. I had to take her back to her mother. She’s home for 12 hours, and her trafficker calls her and tells her she's either going to come back or he’s going to hurt someone in her family. So she goes back."
Reyes, who serves on the Oakland County Human Trafficking Task Force and the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, said she's confident Sanctum House's 16 beds will fill up quickly.
"There is a real need for housing for survivors of trafficking to give them an opportunity to escape the situation that they’re in, and not only just a place to live, but a place to be restored. You know they can get therapy and job skills so they can make a new life," she said.
The hope, Franklin said, is to start with the first house of 16 women and grow, expanding the program to include more homes and residential treatment for men who've been trafficked and boys as well.
Deborah hopes telling her story will give people more compassion for women who are living a very hard life.
"You may see those girls working out there on the street and assume it’s their choice or it’s their fault or whatever," Deborah said. "But you don’t know why that person is out there. Maybe they are being forced to be out there.
"The most important thing for the women that are still out there is don’t give up hope
Even if you’re not ready to leave today. There’s always tomorrow.
"Now there’s a help and it’s Its long-term and it’s available. I can’t believe all of the people in the community who have just wrapped around this program and willing to volunteer and donate wand work diligently to get this open. That amazes me."
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
How to help
Sanctum House, metro Detroit's first safe house and recovery program for women who've been victims of human trafficking, is in need of support.
"You can give us your time, your treasure, your talent," said Sanctum House founder Edee Franklin. "Everybody has something to offer.
"We are always looking for volunteers. We are always looking for toilet paper. It’s the simple things like that. if you have a service you could provide, let us know.
"But really and truly right now, what we most need is sustainability and money, That’s what we need to keep going."
The nonprofit organization also has a van on its wish list, as well as "endowment money and annuities so that we can plan for the future and fund-raising needs."
You can donate to Sanctum House online at www.sanctumhouse.org.
To learn more about how to volunteer or provide a service or other goods, go to www.sanctumhouse.org or call 248-574-9373.
How to get help
If you or someone you know is being trafficked, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
What are the signs of human trafficking?
The National Human Trafficking Hotline offers these warning signs to help people recognize a victim of trafficking. Contact the hotline at 888-373-7888 to report a potential trafficking situation.
Also, keep in mind that any person younger than 18 years old engaging in commercial sex is a victim of trafficking, even if he or she is not being coerced or forced.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.
It is a red flag if a person is:
- not free to leave or come and go as he/she pleases
- in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp or a manager
- unpaid, or paid very little, or paid only through tips
- works excessively long and/or unusual hours
- not allowed breaks or has unusual restrictions at work
- owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
- was recruited to work through false pretenses
- working or living in a place under high security where the windows are opaque, boarded up, barred, or there's barbed wire and security cameras
- fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
- exhibiting unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
- avoiding eye contact
- without access to medical care and/or is denied medical services by employer
- malnourished or shows signs of repeated exposure to harmful chemicals
- showing signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
In addition, people who are trafficked are also more likely to:
- have few or no personal possessions
- not be in control of their own money, financial records or bank account
- not be in control of their own identification documents, such as a license or passport
- not be allowed or able to speak for themselves
- be unable to clarify where they live or provide an address
- be unable to identify what city they're in or even be aware of what time it is
- have numerous inconsistencies in their stories
This story originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.