By Alicia James
Jennifer Unangst founded House of Engedi, a nonprofit organization serving adult female victims of sex trafficking, in 2012. The organization, previously working with a volunteer board and a donated safe house, has blossomed into a full-scale operation since its inception.
Since the 2013 release of a U.S. Attorney of Oregon and Portland State University report, the state—Portland particularly—has been on the map as a sex trafficking hub. The report only confirmed what many in the community already know: sex trafficking is a local reality.
We caught up with House of Engedi organizers to see how they’ve been doing since our report last year.
Josh Armentano, executive director, joined House of Engedi’s board in October 2013. Armentano was a full-time pastor at The Branch when he first reached out to Unangst. “We wanted to mobilize the congregation on a justice issue,” he said. After working with House of Engedi in this capacity, Armentano accepted the executive director position in January 2014. Congregation members have also stayed on as permanent volunteer support. “The Branch adopted House of Engedi, to help with logistics of events, promote the house and awareness events,” he said.
Elizabeth Alston, house director and case manager, was also added to House of Engedi staff in November 2013. Alston, former founding executive director of Hope82, brings years of outreach experience serving exploited women along Portland’s infamous 82nd Avenue to her role. She has also networked extensively with other Oregon nonprofits and state officials to change human trafficking public policy in order to protect, instead of criminalize, victims.
New Permanent Locations
Permanent space is crucial to House of Engedi’s long-term restorative care model. In addition to acquiring downtown Corvallis office space, the organization made offers on and purchased two residential properties in October 2013 entirely through donations and community support. Officially opening on Saturday, June 7, the Portland location will serve as a short-term intake facility where trafficked women can stay until they are moved to the Benton County safe house, which has space for five women. The first resident moved into the Benton County house for the soft opening on Friday, May 23. “This is not being done anywhere else in the state, anywhere in the country,” according to Armentano.
Unlike other women’s shelters, House of Engedi residents will be encouraged to stay as long as necessary. “We’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to walk alongside [them] on this journey of restoration until [they] are ready,” Armentano said. Recent partnership with Linn County Mental Health ensures that survivors are provided a multitude of resources such as life-skills classes, addiction counseling, and mental health services. Equine therapy is another addition to House of Engedi’s care program.
Security has been the biggest challenge to opening the new safe houses. According to the PSU report, 11% of victims have been trafficked by their own families and 49% have gang connections. Trafficked women escape physically dangerous and emotionally volatile environments. House of Engedi has worked closely with local police and safety officials to counteract any potential threats from their past lives. “All police in Benton County know about us. Captains have toured the house and continue to speak into our [security] strategies,” Armentano said. Visitors and volunteers are also required to sign confidentiality agreements in order to protect the safe house locations. “We’re very careful about who we invite.”
Because sex trafficking is such a large local issue, House of Engedi plans on taking their long-term care facility model across the state of Oregon. “We’re trying to find communities who want to take ownerships of the safe space,” Armentano said. “House of Engedi would then bring its model to the community.” The organization also wants to develop safe houses for trafficked women with children and potentially adult men. “Anyone who has been affected by trafficking… would be on the horizon for us,” he said.
How Can the Community Help?
House of Engedi’s current operations and future plans depend entirely on the community. The organization receives no government money, although “the outpouring of local support from local officials has been amazing,” Armentano said. The community can get involved in the following ways:
Join the staff: House of Engedi is looking for a mature woman, aged 21 years or older, to work as the weekend respite care provider. The weekend care provider would live at the house and oversee operations and resident safety. Shift starts Thursday evening and ends Sunday evening. Salary includes a small stipend, as well as free room and board. To apply, visit www.houseofengedi.org/careers.
Raise awareness: House of Engedi would love to come speak at your event to raise awareness about sex trafficking in Oregon. “[The] paradigm is that it only happens overseas in Third World countries,” Armentano said. But, he continues, “This is a local problem that demands a local response, a community response.” Interested groups can contact House of Engedi at info[at]houseofengedi[dot]org.
Donate: House of Engedi’s biggest challenge to sustaining their model has been creating a donor base. In addition to sponsorship from business partners and churches, the organization needs compassionate individuals who can donate “even $20 a month” on a regular basis. House of Engedi also accepts donations in the form of groceries for the house or gifts for residents, such as Amazon gift cards or movie tickets. “We want to celebrate every milestone and achievement,” said Armentano. “Birthdays are going to be a huge event at the house.” More information can be found at www.houseofengedi.org/donate.
Volunteer: A variety of volunteer and internship opportunities are open. To learn more, visit www.houseofengedi.org/action.