Achieving the rank of “safest small city to live” on more than one occasion by Farmers Insurance – most recently this fall — Corvallis seems to instill a sense of safety in residents. Though on a national level our crime statistics are low, the ‘safest’ title, as it turns out, is no reason bury our heads in the sand and look at Corvallis as immune to the most terrible of crimes, such as human trafficking. Not only does the effect of this black industry touch our community on a daily basis, but Corvallis sits along a pipeline primed for the sex trafficking market that culminates in the Portland area – one of the worst in the nation.
While the shock this may give many residents is an excellent indicator of how far we have to go in terms of even making the general public aware, our city also possess several powerful weapons in this war, not the least of which include the tireless work of neighbors such as Jennifer Unangst, who has created The House Of Engedi — a local safehouse for adult survivors of human trafficking.
The Building Blocks & Where We Fit In
Actually defining human trafficking is more difficult than one might think; it’s a broad term that is covered by many laws and statutes. It was summarized by the Polaris Project as the “trade in humans, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, or forced labor,” however, the act of trafficking can take many other forms. The Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force is located in the city of Portland, which has recently developed a reputation for being a national hub for juvenile sex trafficking in particular. Portland police officer Jeff Ruppel states that although the demand is high in Portland, “it’s not always where the youth start or likely where they will end.” Ruppel described an elaborate network of pimps that work along the I-5 corridor and explained that in the tech-savvy world we live in, many pimps use social media, such as Facebook, to reach out to vulnerable youth. Ruppel was sure to mention that these youth are often from Corvallis, Eugene, Sweet Home, and even all the way up through Washington.
When asked the amount of girls from the Valley currently being trafficked through Portland, Ruppel said “for every one girl being approached in Portland there is a girl being approached in Corvallis, and Eugene.” When you take into account the population differences, it becomes abundantly clear that smaller cities like Corvallis are being targeted in particular. This reality undoubtedly led to the creation of the Benton-Linn County Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT), who operates a help hotline as well as spearheads events and awareness campaigns in an effort to help put a dent in local trafficking enterprises.
Hidden In Plain Sight
Just this last Oct. 22nd, CCAHT presented a showing of the short documentary Chosen at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, which tells first-person stories of being trafficked and tricked. After the film, Detective Keith Bickford of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force discussed the work of the task force as well as the status of human trafficking in Oregon.
Bickford suggested that human trafficking is often a crime “hidden in plain sight.” He stated that the mix of pimps preying on vulnerable girls and a population of people wanting to “bury their heads” and look the other way helps to create the opportunity criminals desire. Although the topic is scary for people or even hard to imagine, it’s important to raise awareness—especially in communities like Corvallis that feel safe or exempt. For us Corvallisites, it may be easy to look around and not see any evidence of human trafficking and dismiss it – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s here.
“It’s a topic that most people don’t know about or don’t want to know about. Portland is one or two in the country [for sex trafficking] depending on who you ask, so this issue is very close to home,” says Ailiah Schafer of CCAHT. Though the video is useful for anyone, Schafer claims that it is especially effective for youth, as it features other youth who have been trafficked. CCAHT has been in the works for about two years at this point, and has started hosting these local events to address the issues of human trafficking that are in our own backyards.
“Human trafficking happens everywhere. Wherever there are at-risk youth, there is trafficking,” said Schafer, who further went on to explain that this is because pimps and traffickers often lure young people in who haven’t got other people to depend on, or who feel neglected by the adults in their lives. Not only does this echo the difficulties in hunting down the raw numbers regarding how many youth are actually being trafficked, but makes it increasingly obvious that this problem is not restricted to any particular number of areas.
PSU Leads Search for Real Numbers
The U.S. Attorney for Oregon recently commissioned a study through Portland State University in an attempt to get real world statistics regarding the number of underage girls being trafficked through the Portland area. The study, released in August 2013, stated that at least 469 underage children were exploited as commercial sex workers from 2009 to 2013 in the state. The researchers admitted that this number was likely lower than the actual figure due to the same inherent difficulties that provided the need for this study in the first place.
Results suggested that nearly one in five victims reported a history of family exploitation and that 11% were exploited by their own families. Perhaps the most astonishing data produced from the study was that while the average age of a victim was 15.5 years old, the youngest being just 8, 16% of all victims had already had one or more children – something that adds further dimensions to a crime that is already beyond tragic.
The House Of Engedi
Although the task ahead looks bleak, there are beacons lighted on the hill. Corvallis recently became home to a safe house for adult survivors by the name of The House of Engedi. Currently it houses two girls, though they will not have a problem filling any empty spots as they reach out and make connections. Engedi is a sanctuary that provides survivors the ability to live in a transitional setting for approximately a year while while transitioning into a stable life. Available services include counseling, spiritual guidance, job and life skills training, as well as GED and other school options. The founder, Jennifer Unangst—a survivor of childhood trauma herself—has an immense passion within her to help these victimized youths.
A 19-year-old survivor currently residing at the House of Engedi named Haylee relayed a story of being trafficked into a life of prostitution at the age of 15 and then finally struggling free only just recently. Haylee was only able to do so by working as a “snitch” with the police, putting what she felt she had left of her life on the line to help make a change. That push for change paid off when Haylee’s pimp was eventually sentenced to life in prison, allowing her to live freely as well as freeing approximately 25 other women. She is doing well now, hoping to one day pursue a career as a district attorney.
Corvallis has rallied to bring services to local survivors and awareness to the community about the preventing trafficking whenever and wherever possible. The current theme of direct care agencies and law enforcement centers around educating the community about the true face of human trafficking, as well as the vast population it can affect. In other words, Unangst and CCAHT aren’t the only ones mobilizing. Many other agencies in town have started the conversation and taken action to provide services to survivors as well. The Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV) advocates for survivors of sex trafficking and can offer them safety planning, emergency shelter, and can even help network them out of town to a safe place.
Although the efforts towards help and awareness are spreading, the perpetrators of these crimes are vigilant. If you would like to donate or volunteer in any way, please make contact with one or more of the groups listed below — and if you yourself need help or know anyone who does, please contact CARDV or local law enforcement immediately.