Illustration by Valerie Pensworth

"BABY, WE NEED MONEY," he told her. "Please, baby, do it for me."

They had only been together for three months, but Kendall Simons (name changed for privacy reasons) was in love. It was 2006, and Darren "DJ" Evans had just been kicked out of his mother's house. Sixteen-year-old Kendall decided it would be an adventure to leave behind her loving parents and their home in East Portland to live out of DJ's car. Within days, she was walking 82nd Avenue, turning up to 25 tricks a day.

It is no secret that Portland has a thriving sex industry, both legal and illegal. And while Portlanders are known for respecting sexual freedom, the city also has a less-than-savory reputation as a hotspot for those seeking sex with underage girls.

In an FBI-coordinated, cross-country sting in February, local and federal law enforcement picked up seven underage girls in Portland within four hours. This put Portland in the number two spot for underage prostitution out of 29 cities that participated—Seattle was number one. In each city, officers set up "meets" in various, undisclosed locations with girls suspected of being trafficked, says FBI Portland spokesperson Beth Anne Steele. When they arrived, the girls were moved to safe locations and adult prostitutes, pimps, and johns were arrested.

Breaking the Circuit

Portland is located on the I-5 Corridor, putting it smack in the middle of what's known as "the circuit," says Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Bickford, head of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force (OHTTF). This particular highway makes Portland an easy stop for johns and pimps passing through. Pimps usher girls from Seattle down to Portland, through Sacramento to Los Angeles, then to Las Vegas and back again.

OHTTF, under the supervision of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, is one of the biggest players in the fight against underage human trafficking. The task force organizes law enforcement from all over the state: FBI's Portland Division, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local police departments, and other government agencies. They also provide specialized training for police officers that deal with this issue on a regular basis.

Portland Police Vice Officer Meghan Burkeen says the vice squad picks up one to two underage girls walking the street each week. These girls are not arrested—they are treated as victims, not criminals, according to Burkeen. When police find a girl, they often cannot immediately remove her from the streets because she's afraid to talk to authority figures. The officer must first gain her trust, which might take weeks. When she is ready, the police will return her to her home or take her to the Janus Youth Program's Reception Center in Northeast Portland—a safe space where youths picked up by the police for nonviolent offenses like running away or trespassing wait for their parents or a caseworker.

Burned, Stabbed, and Shot

"Most of the teens I meet with have experienced repeated, horrific abuse at the hands of both pimps and johns," says Esther Nelson at the Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC), who often meets girls at the Janus Youth Center to provide support and advocacy. "Many have been burned, stabbed, shot, strangled, thrown from moving cars, tied up, branded, and starved."

Kendall, too, claims she suffered at the hands of her pimp, DJ. She says she would wake up in the morning, put on her sunglasses to cover her black eye, prepare a lie for why she was limping, and go to high school—even during the year she spent being pimped out by DJ. Classes would end; she would hit the streets. When she got hungry, she would call DJ and ask if she could buy something to eat. She says she ate off the value menu most days. Upon returning "home" to DJ—which was either his car or a cheap motel—he would often be drunk. If she didn't have sex with him, he wouldn't talk to her for days.

He brainwashed her—pimped her out. He was controlling, abusive, and alcoholic, she says. But she stayed because she loved him. She was 16. She thought she could change him. It took her an entire year to get angry enough to leave him for good.

"I always had a family that I could run back to," she told the Mercury. "But I'm rare. I know there's a lot of girls out there that don't have families like mine."

Biking for a Shelter

In Portland, like the rest of the country, underage victims of prostitution without families have few resources. Of the mere 39 beds in the entire United States dedicated to helping these victims, Portland doesn't even have one, according to Seth Johnson, global advocacy director at Transitions Global, a Hillsboro-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting human trafficking in Portland, Cambodia, and India.

In Portland there are catch-all youth shelters, such as Harry's Mother (a part of Janus Youth Programs), and youth aid groups, such as Outside In. There are nonprofits to help sexually abused and exploited women, such as SARC, and prostituted women, such as the Lola Greene Baldwin Foundation and the Council for Prostitution Alternatives. But there is no comprehensive, secure facility specifically tailored to underage girls forced into prostitution.

"There is currently no 'one-stop-shop' for the kind of wrap-around, trauma-informed care that these youth deserve," says SARC's Nelson. "They need a safe place to go where they will be offered individual counseling, possibly drug and alcohol detox, life-skills training, and mentorship, and most of all they need a safe caregiver so that they can learn that their most basic human rights are just that, rights."

Transitions Global is hoping to create such a place. They have plans to open a secure, 16-20 bed shelter where girls won't live in fear of their pimp finding them. The shelter plans to provide medical attention, counseling and therapy (including yoga and art), education "rehabilitation," and job skills and placement—advancements that could make it the first shelter of its kind in the country.

Despite support from Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel and OHTTF, funding is scarce. No government dollars have been thrown their way, and people are wary of investing in a project that doesn't already have any major donors, says Johnson of Transitions Global.

Reed College and Portland State University students are putting together a 27-mile bike ride called Bike for Shelter (bikeforshelter.org), that—if all goes according to plan—aims to raise the $800,000 necessary to open the shelter's doors this fall.

"Because there's nothing to help [these girls] holistically, they're back on the streets pretty quickly," Johnson says, making it easy for pimps to find and regain control over a girl who has escaped.

Prosecuting Pimps

DJ always knew where to find Kendall. "Baby, let me come over," he pleaded the day after she told him she was leaving for good. "I just want to talk. Please, baby." To prove to herself she was stronger now, she let him come over to her parents' house. That's when he tried to kill her.

Young victims like Kendall are usually the only evidence the district attorney has in prosecuting pimps—so if the girl runs away from her family again, is lured away from a non-secure shelter by her pimp, or is beaten into submission, the case is lost.

"It's the victim's statement that will convict," says Greg Moawad, deputy district attorney for Multnomah County. Pimps convicted of "compelling prostitution" typically face around 70 months of prison time. Johns charged with prostitution usually face probation. By the end of Kendall's ordeal, however, her pimp was facing much more than a prostitution charge.

DJ showed up at her house while her parents were out, reeking of alcohol, according to Kendall. He asked her to wash his shirt, and they went down to the laundry room. He grabbed her around the neck. "Why are you being such a bitch?" he screamed. Kendall broke free. She ran to her bedroom for her cell phone. He grabbed her neck again and slammed her down on the futon. She started to scream.

She remembered what DJ told her once. If someone is trying to strangle you, don't scream—it uses oxygen faster. Kendall felt herself losing consciousness, but stopped trying to yell. Harnessing the last of her energy, she kicked him off. She ran to the corner, curled up in the fetal position, and dialed 911. DJ saw the phone. He snapped it in half, but not before the call had gone though. He stomped on her back, and then told her to get up, go downstairs, and get his shirt out of the laundry.

Back in the basement, he stripped her down to just her underpants. "In two hours, your dad is going to come home and find your dead body on the basement floor," he told her. If she died, there would be no one to point the finger at him.

The police were already on the way. Kendall, unlike many girls manipulated by their pimps, knew the police would help, not punish her.

While all prostitutes, technically, are breaking the law, it's rare for a Portland police officer to arrest an underage girl for prostitution. Should such an arrest be made, however, the district attorney's juvenile division gathers facts before choosing to take on the case, says Tom Cleary, Multnomah County's senior district attorney in the juvenile department.

"We want to make sure we get the right kid in the right place," which is more often a place where she can get rehabilitation help, not a detention center, says Cleary.

Clearing up Legal Confusion

To make sure these underage girls end up getting help, rather than punishment, County Commissioner McKeel is working on a new law to submit to Salem. Based on New York's Safe Harbor Act, it would consider any person under 18 engaging in prostitution to be a victim of trafficking and "in need of supervision." It would also include provisions for services such as safe houses, crisis intervention, and special training for police officers.

DJ was the bad guy. Kendall knew that. She also knew she needed to get out of the basement and away from him. She asked for water. He made her bark for it. When she got upstairs to the kitchen, someone was pounding on the door.

"It's the cops," she told him.

"Tell them we were just having sex," he said. "Please, baby, do it for me."

She covered her breasts with her hands and opened the door. The purple bruises around her neck said it all. The cops arrested DJ. They took Kendall to the hospital, where she was treated for broken ribs and a collapsed lung, according to the police report.

DJ pled guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison for assault in the second degree and promoting prostitution, according to court records.

Facing the Future

Kendall is back with her family. She graduated from high school on time and is now going to Central Oregon Community College studying criminal justice with the hopes of becoming a detective or crime scene investigator.

"My life hasn't even started yet," Kendall says confidently. "I'm 19 years old. I have a whole life ahead of me."

In many ways, Kendall's experience is typical of underage girls forced into prostitution. She had no control over her daily activities. She was afraid to leave for fear her pimp would track her and her family down. She was manipulated by a man who knew just how to charm her.

He was sweet at first, she said. "He knew just how to catch a girl's eye."

She was disgusted with what she had to do, but felt she had no choice. Usually she lied and told her customers she was 18, but she told the truth to one john—that she was 16. That was too old for him. He wanted a 12-year-old. She offered to put her hair in pigtails because she needed the money, but he refused.

Portland's underage victims of prostitution come from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, says Officer Burkeen. However, most are runaways, and many are in and out of foster care.

Kendall was different in this respect. She came from a caring family. She didn't run away to spite her parents. She was never sexually abused as a child, and she was never a ward of the state.

Kendall is proud of how far she's come. She still has nightmares sometimes, but has gained independence and confidence, she tells me with a smile.

When asked if talking about this part of her life was difficult, Kendall looked me in the eye and told me, "I'm only trying to help. As long as I help one person, that's good enough for me."

To donate or volunteer contact Transitions Global (transitionsglobal.org), Bike for Shelter (bikeforshelter.org), Janus Youth Programs (janusyouth.org), and Sexual Assault Resource Center (sarcoregon.org). For crisis intervention, call SARC at 640-5311. To report a possible trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888.