NEXT MONTH, Portland will open its first emergency shelter beds for underage victims of sex trafficking. These are children who have been forced to sell their bodies for sex, often in multiple states—and, as the national media loves to point out, we have a hell of a lot of them.
To no one's surprise, politicians are trumpeting the beds—up to four, funded with one-time city money—as a big step toward shedding the city's stigma as a sex-trafficking hub.
But while advocates also welcome the beds as a huge gain on the way to providing solid services for victims, they also are clear: Emergency beds are not a fix. They are temporary, and available only to girls. And when a girl's stay runs out, especially if going home means returning to abusive parents, her only alternatives are foster care and group homes.
Instead, advocates say, providing long-term housing is far more crucial to restructuring victims' lives. But if it's hard to find government cash for emergency services, it's near impossible when it comes to finding it for long-term shelter beds.
"The emergency piece of victim services has a very limited, specific use," said Dennis Morrow, executive director of Janus Youth Programs, the agency that will operate the new emergency beds. "What we really need is the piece downstream: intermediate housing."
Selling minors for sex is a guarded business, and hard data can be elusive. Estimates of the number of children who have been exploited in Portland widely vary—even the police bureau has provided conflicting information. Morrow says there are between 75 and 150 victims in Portland on any given day; others say the higher estimates are more accurate.
"This is not an acute problem in Portland. It's a chronic problem," said Joslyn Baker, head of Multnomah County's Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Steering Committee (CSEC). "That's why this issue is on the front burner."
Despite an overall lack of funding, local officials want to do what they can. The emergency beds showcase the kind of inexpensive, easy-to-implement proposals favored by CSEC—rather than building a new shelter or expanding an existing one, Multnomah County is simply reallocating unused beds at Janus' intake center for runaway youths, Garfield House.
Two of the beds are sponsored by the department of health services, reserved for girls in the care of the state; those beds will now be reserved for girls in the system who have been trafficked. Morrow hopes up to two more will be permanently available to trafficking victims.
"These are not your typical runaways," Morrow said. "They are usually younger, and are oftentimes coming from abusive family situations. Many are actively using or addicted to drugs. They have a multiplicity of very complex issues."
They also require complex services. Garfield House residents will have access to mental health and addiction services, in a program closely modeled after Portland's approach to serving homeless youth, which Morrow describes as nationally renowned. Those services will be available even after clients leave the shelter.
Because pimps pose a serious security threat, Garfield House will install cameras and double its reception staff. The shelter also will pay for a victim's advocate from the Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC).
There are other challenges. Portland's gift of $285,000 in city contingency funds—which will pay for the Garfield House upgrades as well as two more SARC advocates—won't come every year. Garfield House will need $81,300 annually to maintain its new services.
When asked about ongoing funding, Mayor Sam Adams' office pointed to proceeds from asset forfeitures—the reselling of property seized during prostitution busts—and to the holiday fundraising efforts of Portland-area churches.
And, even then, because the Garfield House is designed as emergency, short-term housing, girls can only stay there for up to a few weeks.
The YWCA of Greater Portland has offered up an unused building for use as a long-term shelter. But without money for renovations or operating costs (which can easily exceed $1 million a year), there are no immediate plans in place, says Eric Brown, the YWCA's executive director.
Consider this example: Children of the Night in Los Angeles—the nation's only comprehensive sex-trafficking rehabilitation program—provides long-term housing, counseling, schooling, scholarships, and an extensive alumni program. Its $2 million building is paid for, but running the 24-bed shelter, including social services, costs $1.8 million a year, says founder Lois Lee.
Lee says 300 foundations, 50 major donors, and thousands of small donors make her program possible.
"Long-term care is critical," Lee wrote in an email. "Foster parents cannot deal with the problems of these children because these children need 24-hour supervision."
Some money, however, may be on its way.
In a news conference Sunday, December 12, at the Multnomah County Office Building, Senator Ron Wyden hailed the Senate's approval of an anti-human-trafficking bill that would grant six cities $2 million to $2.5 million apiece for victim services.
The money could be used on shelters, Wyden's office says, but it could also be used to pay police and prosecutors or finance investigation expenses like wiretaps.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer said he thinks the bill could clear the House. He also thinks that Portland would be one of the six grant recipients: "I think we're better positioned than other cities in the country."
Separately, congress is deliberating an earmark that would send $900,000 directly to Portland for victims of sex trafficking. But given Washington, DC's political climate, local agencies aren't holding their breath.
Even if the bills pass, and Portland is flooded with funds, long-term housing may not materialize. A government-funded shelter would be unprecedented. And eventually? The money would run out. Baker also was quick to point out other issues, like permissive laws and the demand for sex with minors, and contends that they cost much less to tackle.
For example, current Oregon law allows a defendant to claim he was ignorant of the prostitute's age, and thus escape charges for exploiting a minor.
"Portland is a sex tourism destination," says Baker. "People say Portland is progressive—I think Portland is permissive, and that sometimes we get lazy."