A safe place to stay could mean the difference between life or death for a Minnesota girl who has been forced to sell her body, yet there are only a handful of beds in the entire state reserved solely for child sex trafficking victims.
Local advocates and authorities celebrated a big step in the fight against child sex trafficking Tuesday with the groundbreaking of a new St. Paul shelter for sexually exploited youth that would greatly expand the number of beds available to abused girls.
The Safe and Sound Shelter, which will be located on the East Side will add a dozen dedicated beds when it opens next summer.
“What we have here today is a gigantic leap forward. What we have here today is our response as a community to say, ‘We’re not just going to sit back and allow this to happen. We’re not going to allow our children to be exploited,’ ” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman at a news conference before the ceremonial groundbreaking.
The shelter will be run by 180 Degrees, a Twin Cities nonprofit that offers youth and adult services, with help from partners the Midwest Children’s Resource Center and Breaking Free, a St. Paul organization that currently has four beds in the state dedicated to trafficking victims.
“They [officials] are doing the first step. … We’ve got to get these kids off the street,” said Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free.
Girls ages 10 to 17 will be able to stay at the shelter typically up to three months and can receive chemical dependency treatment, mental health help, vocational training and other services. Statistics are unreliable for how many victims are in the state, but the number of beds currently available fell short of meeting the need.
The center will be located on 180 Degrees’ youth development campus next to its current East Side offices. One building has already been demolished to make way for the new shelter and another building is set to be razed, said Richard Gardell, the chief executive officer of 180 Degrees. The center is scheduled to open next August.
“This shelter for us is built with the input and the love and care of survivors,” Gardell said.
Tuesday’s event was attended by notable stakeholders including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith and Women’s Foundation of Minnesota president Lee Roper-Batker among others.
At the event, Klobuchar highlighted the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETT) that she introduced last week, which is modeled after Minnesota’s Safe Harbor laws. It’s aimed at getting all states to enact Safe Harbor provisions to ensure that minors who are trafficked are treated as victims. Other provisions in the legislation would include helping trafficking victims recover damages. About a dozen states have some form of Safe Harbor laws.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature approved $2.8 million to fund the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth legislation, $1 million of which went to create shelter for sex trafficking victims, said Jeff Bauer, director of public policy at the Family Partnership. Four different organizations across Minnesota have been awarded the state grants, which are expected to help fund an additional 18 dedicated beds, Bauer said.
The city awarded 180 Degrees a $150,000 loan and a $350,000 grant from the Neighborhood STAR program this year to help fund the shelter. Funding for the capital campaign also came from private foundations and federal new-market tax credits, Gardell said. The organization’s goal is to have $3.3 million for the shelter. To date they have raised about $1.4 million and are accepting additional donations for the project, he said.