Myriad obstacles stand in the way of well-being and independence for the people Preble Street serves. But for few are the barriers as brutal as for the survivors of human trafficking with whom Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Services works.

They’re seeking not only safety and freedom but also a chance to reclaim their lives.

It may be shocking to learn that Maine is home to people in the grip of human trafficking. But they are here hidden in plain sight: transgender and cisgender women, men and children forced – by sexual, physical and psychological coercion or violence – to do all kinds of work including sex work, restaurant and hospitality work, farm labor and domestic service. Often working alongside others who aren’t being trafficked, they are victims of illegal labor practices, with little or no pay and unsafe working conditions.

We’ve worked with people who have been forced to work long hours with little food and water, allowed no breaks or health care and held against their will in horrific living conditions.

Deb was forced to work in a restaurant nonstop from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. She had no control over where she lived and worked or whom she could contact. Her trafficker took all the money she earned.

Tony was coerced into sex work by a trafficker who used substances to recruit and control him, threatening to withhold opioids – causing Tony to become violently ill from withdrawal – when he didn’t do the work.

Ashani – coerced into working as a domestic servant – was never paid, had no access to her passport and was never allowed out of the house.

Because it can be challenging to understand a new country’s laws and systems, immigrants can be especially vulnerable. Even those who haven’t experienced trafficking in the U.S. may have been trafficked in their home country, in a refugee camp or during migration. Whether asylum seekers or refugees, immigrants may not know their rights as workers. They may not know where to turn for help, or may not seek help for fear of prosecution, deportation, losing their ability to work in the U.S. or threats to their families back home, which is why this past summer the Anti-Trafficking Services team held regular hours at the Portland Expo during the influx of asylum seekers to screen for potential survivors.

According to the 2016 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, “Millions of individuals are bound by mental, physical, and financial coercion and manipulation by traffickers who exploit their vulnerabilities for profit. Whether they are victims of sex or labor trafficking, the suffering of these individuals is unconscionable.”

When we talk about Preble Street’s work, no one is surprised to hear about the problems that shatter the lives of the people we serve. The opioid epidemic, lack of affordable housing and access to health care, hunger and refugees fleeing war and tyranny are visible in newspapers and on city streets. But human trafficking is often happening in unexpected places.

We first became involved in this work in 2010, when the Preble Street Teen Center team began hearing from youth trapped in exploitive situations accompanied by terrible violence and trauma. With others doing anti-trafficking work, we formed a group that reached out to local, state and federal law enforcement to develop identification and response systems.

Recognizing the urgent need for this work, we developed Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Services. From offices in Portland and Bangor, ATS conducts outreach throughout Maine, working with survivors of all forms of human trafficking – providing intensive case management, mental health counseling, shelter and housing referrals, and advocating for them through the criminal justice system – as they reclaim and rebuild their lives.

Often working alongside with law enforcement, we have served trafficking survivors from the restaurant and hospitality sectors and domestic laborers, many of whom have navigated the path to security and safety.

ATS also trains first responders, law enforcement officers, medical personnel, schools and shelters, providing information for identifying and referring survivors to services.

In the past two years we’ve trained over 4,000 people, to raise awareness of the prevalence of human trafficking in Maine and the comprehensive work being done to help survivors achieve their goals for personal agency, independence and perhaps above all, justice.

 


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