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When teens run away from home and experience homelessness, they’re at a higher risk for becoming victims of sex trafficking. According to a 2016 report from The National Missing & Exploited Children, one in six endangered runaways was a likely sex trafficking victim. Two in every three will be approached by an exploiter within 48 hours of running away from home.
In Oakland, California, there is only one teen shelter specifically designed for sexually trafficked girls. It’s called Nika’s Place and it will start serving teens this summer.
This one-of-a-kind facility is located directly across from the Oakland Police Department. At first glance, it looks like a traditional Oakland Victorian home, with octagonal windows, elaborate wood siding, and wraparound wooden stairs in front.
As soon as you set foot inside, it doesn’t look like your typical shelter–you know, large open area with several rows of beds lined up. Instead, it looks more like home. There is a kitchen with granite table tops and chrome refrigerators, dining area, a living room area where kids can play games or sit around and watch TV. Youth even have access to a laundry room.
Youth Radio spoke to Amba Johnson, director of DreamCatcher, which runs Nika’s Place, about what makes this facility unique and what makes homeless youth more vulnerable to trafficking.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Marie Sosa,Youth Radio: Walking around this facility, it doesn’t feel like a shelter but more like a home, was that the intention?
Amba Johnson: Yep that’s the point. That’s the goal. We want it to feel like a home. It’s a chilled space. Almost everything is made available so they don’t have to ask for it. That’s really important. Things are just flowing naturally. Somebody is cooking, somebody is at the table playing games, some are in the other room watching TV with somebody that is likely to be a therapist. They need to be able to be served without having to identify as CSEC or commercially trafficked or homeless. Those things are not them. They are things that have happened to them and when we encapsulate them in those terms we hinder them.
MS: What makes this place one of a kind?
AJ: There’s no other…designed and developed to provide the extra support that girls that have been touched by trafficking could need. So it’s a survivor-driven shelter. The most important thing is that the program itself is staffed by people that either are survivors or have worked with girls that had been impacted for enough years that they really have a solid base of insight.
MS: What makes a homeless youth more vulnerable to being trafficked?
AJ: We’re having to compete with people that compete pretty ruthlessly. Exploiters compete very ruthlessly. Eighty percent of all the youth that are trafficked were homeless when their exploiter found them. So when a youth goes homeless, the list of things they lose is very long. It’s clothing, TV, your mom, your dad, your phone, it’s a toothbrush..it’s your sense of safety. When somebody shows up and they say, ‘I can fill in, not just one of those needs but several of those needs.’ That’s very very powerful. ‘I can keep you safe.’ Whether it’s a lie or not, it really resonates.
MS: As you notice more of your clients are victims of sex trafficking, are you concerned this new space will fill up quickly?
AJ: It makes it overwhelming. We’ve gotten this facility and that’s great. But that’s not the end of the fight. It’s the beginning. I would like to see three small Victorians…so that kids can get to safety faster before the exploiters get to them. The reality is, the kids that are very far away from us, never get to us. The suicide rate is crazy…And it’s not OK.
MS: How long can a youth stay in the shelter?
AJ: These beds are for up to 21 days. We return about 40 percent of the youth home with family mediation. But if the circumstances are that we’re not close to a solution at the end of 21 days, we’ll arrange for them to find what works with them like someplace safe for the night. Then we’ll go for a second round of it.