Portland coalition takes aim at human trafficking

PORTLAND – A coalition led by social service agency Preble Street has received a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide services for victims of human trafficking in Cumberland and York counties.

With the two-year grant, the Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition will provide outreach, health and legal services, case management and other help in response to trafficking of people who are exploited to engage in sex or labor. The coalition also plans to develop a housing network for trafficking victims, officials said at a Monday press conference.

The coalition has a dozen members. Besides Preble Street, they include the city, the U.S. attorney’s office, and organizations such as Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine and Catholic Charities of Maine.

“The tragedy, the danger, the violence of human trafficking is here in Maine,” Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said. “We see it at Preble Street when girls, boys, young women and men, are forced into prostitution, exploited and abused, and treated as nothing more than a product to sell.

“But they’re human beings, and we care about them,” he continued. “Preble Street and this new coalition will provide safety, compassion and a way out for these victims.”

It’s difficult to quantify the incidence of trafficking, but information that’s available is disturbing.

A hotline at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received an average of less than two dozen calls a year from Maine during 2007-2010, according to the center. In 2011, the last year for which complete information was available, the hotline had communicated with 46 Maine callers.

Preble Street’s experience bears out the dimensions of the problem.

Of 80 women and girls at Preble Street shelters who participated in a survey last year, more than 20 reported being offered money, drugs or food for having sex with a stranger, Swann said.

Southern Maine is also home to workers, many of them immigrants, who are exploited by unfair wages or illegal employment conditions. Swann called the problem a “real and constant danger … that is intentionally hidden from public view.”

In response, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the coalition will use a “victim-centric approach” that will “physically drag the issue (of trafficking) into the light.”

“As long as one of our residents is being victimized, that’s too many,” Sauschuck said.

Dianne “dee” Clarke, a peer support consultant with Preble Street, described her own experience being “pimped out” as a 12-year-old prostitute in Boston.

“I was victimized over and over again,” she said. “I became a wreck. I was lost.”

But Clarke said she is hopeful about the potential impact of the coalition and the grant.

“This is going to save lives,” she said. “I know it.”