They will not call it a shelter. It will be a “healing center” because, when you’re dealing with women whose lives have descended into violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other traumas, that’s precisely what they need.

“They’re the most vulnerable women we serve,” Daniella Cameron, senior director of Teen Services and Anti-Trafficking Services at Preble Street, said in an interview last week. “This is really an opportunity to create and provide a space for women to come and really start that journey toward healing.”

Preble Street, the social services organization that for more than 40 years has been throwing lifelines to Maine’s most marginalized population, recently signed a purchase-and-sale agreement on a three-story brick building at 55 Portland St.

If all goes according to plan, starting with a soon-to-be-launched $6 million private fundraising effort, the former Portland Public Works building will become a first-of-its-kind haven for women whose stories don’t often get told, women who are struggling in plain sight just to survive the nightmares of homelessness, sexual assault and, more often than you may think, human trafficking that is nothing short of hostage taking.

Women like Jessica Lewin.

She’s 32, the mother of four and, if not for Cameron and Preble Street’s six-year-old Anti-Trafficking Services program, wouldn’t be here to tell her story today.

Jessica grew up in Cumberland but hit the streets of Portland when she was just 14. She did her best to survive, earning her GED and a culinary arts certificate from Stone Soup, a restaurant training program in the former Portland Public Market.

But over time, things took a dark turn toward substance abuse, hanging out with the wrong crowd and, before she knew what was happening, a debt to a local gang that she couldn’t repay.

So began her living hell. You can still see traces of it in her eyes and hear it in her voice as she recalls, with quiet courage, how a group of thugs robbed her of her very being.

“I was forced to buy drugs for them, I was forced to drive for them. I was forced to perform sex acts. I was forced to do whatever I had to do,” she said in an interview on Friday. “My life was threatened on a daily basis over and over and over again. I watched people get shot. I watched countless acts of violence …”

In short, the gang controlled her every move. If they sent her out on a drug delivery and she was more than five minutes late returning, her phone would light up with angry messages, followed by “consequences” when she finally returned.

If she tried to flee – she did once, only to have her car break down after a mile – they’d prowl the streets until they found her and brought her back to more punishment, more abuse.

And try as she might to “work” her way out of her debt, it never decreased. In fact, it only seemed to get bigger.

“It was like I was going to owe for a place to stay. I was going to owe for any food, even if I didn’t eat,” she said. “I could go weeks without eating and I was still going to owe for that.”

They kept her for a time in Portland, then South Portland. They even took her to Connecticut at one point, all the while ordering her to do whatever she was told, whenever she was told.

Or else what?

“Or else I had a gun to my head,” Jessica replied.

More than once, she attempted suicide by overdosing on heroin. But each time, her captors quickly revived her with Narcan – she can still remember her rage at waking up in the same predicament she’d just tried to escape.

Finally, a few years ago, Jessica got ensnared in a drug bust by Portland police and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. She ended up in the Cumberland County Jail, where her lawyer listened to her story and called Cameron at Anti-Trafficking Services.

Looking back, Jessica calls her arrest “a blessing in disguise.”

Upon her release after a month and a half in jail, her strict probation required that she have a fixed home address. Unable to find or afford her own place, she relied on friends and family to take her in and, working with the good folks at Preble Street, began counseling to get her life back on track.

But it wasn’t enough. Beset by post-traumatic stress disorder, she got in her car one day, drove deep into a wooded area and injected herself with what she knew was a lethal amount of heroin.

“And by some miracle, an officer found me and broke into my car – smashed a window,” she said. “I barely had a pulse. I died on the ground in front of him. He had to do CPR. And when the EMT’s arrived I was pronounced dead for seven minutes.”

But once more, she survived. Only this time, she went from the hospital to Morrison Place at Randall Street, a residential treatment facility in Portland run by The Opportunity Alliance. She stayed there for 15 months and, at long last, moved into a place of her own.

Jessica now works as a peer support worker for Greater Portland Health. She acts as a liaison between the agency and patients, many of them homeless, who might otherwise miss their daily medication-assisted treatment or fall through the social safety net altogether.

Her four kids, who range in age from 7 to 13, stay with her on weekends. She can’t talk about them without smiling.

None of this, Jessica insists, would have been possible without Anti-Trafficking Services. Where once she had zero awareness of what human trafficking even is – she simply considered herself a hostage – she now understands how insidiously one can go from independence to complete and utter servitude.

Cameron developed Anti-Trafficking Services after hearing too many stories of homeless people, many still in their teens, getting plucked off the street and threatened or coerced into forced labor – be it commercialized sex or other exploitative jobs that range from agriculture to restaurants to domestic work.

Since its creation in 2013, Anti-Trafficking Services has helped more than 200 trafficking survivors. They range in age from as young as 13 to as old as 59, with the majority over the age of 25.

“Anywhere where there are marginalized and vulnerable people, there’s an opportunity to exploit them,” Cameron said. “And in Maine, we have a lot of people who are vulnerable.”

The 30-to-40-bed healing center on Portland Street will aim to help women, like Jessica, in need of a safe place to pick up the pieces – not just from having been trafficked, but from any number of traumas involving domestic violence, homelessness and sexual assault.

According to Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, the new facility will supplement the city’s planned homeless services center by providing a program designed specifically for these women, a sanctuary far away from the life-and-death danger that now enshrouds their every move.

From where Jessica sits, the center can’t come soon enough.

“I think that is huge,” she said. “I think that it’s really important to have a place that is trauma-informed. There’s so much trauma that is out there.”

And not enough healing.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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