GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One of the first things a person trying to escape human trafficking will notice walking into Sacred Beginnings Walk in Center at 339 South Division is the wall of pillows.
“All different colors, all different shapes. They’re all different sizes. The women who come through this door are all different shapes, all different sizes,” said Leslie King-Friday, founder and president of Sacred Beginnings.
King-Friday knows what survivors of human trafficking have been through, and what they need.
Coerced into prostitution at 15, it took King-Friday 20 years to break free.
In the mid-2000s she established Sacred Beginnings.
The organizations has two homes for survivors in transition. The Walk In Center, located off the parking lot in back of the South Division site, opened last November.
It’s a place where women can get the help and skills they need to start a new life, just as she did.
“We are the liaison between social workers, police, court systems. … That’s what we’re here for,” said King-Friday.
It’s difficult to compile statistics that show the depth of human trafficking.
“I can say that logically, we’re the second biggest city in Michigan. And logically speaking, we have it here to,” said Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young.
To get a better handle on the scope of the problem and help victims break the cycle of human trafficking, the sheriff’s office has established a Human Trafficking Task Force.
A $750,000 justice department grant helped establish the program.
LaJoye-Young says the task force will include community resources like the Salvation Army and the group Solutions to End Exploitation.
They’ll work to identify victims and provide them with a wide range of services that can save victims from trafficking. Last on the list, they’ll prosecute traffickers.
“It’s important that we really look at that person we’re dealing with. I would feel it’s very successful to divert many people from criminal prosecution if that’s not what the best result is from coming in to contact with them. Perhaps they need food, shelter, counseling,” said LaJoye-Young.
Part of the effort will provide training for deputies to spot trafficking victims, especially those involved in unrelated crimes.
“If we can get to the something more that’s going on, we can prevent it from happening to other people. And we can better deal with the person that’s in front of us right now,” said LaJoye-Young.
LaJoye-Young says the success of the program won’t be measured by arrests.
“I’m going to measure success by human beings helped, whatever that help looks like. And by connections being established,” said LaJoye-Young.
But King-Friday says the task force’s biggest hurdle will be trust.
“You’re talking about the police walking up on somebody wanting to help them … that might not work to good. Because we don’t trust the police,” said King-Friday.
She says victims of human trafficking tend to trust someone who’s been through it themselves.
“I appreciate what they’re trying to do. Don’t get me wrong because it takes a lot of us to combat this,” said King-Friday. “But they need a survivor in that position.”
Salvation Army spokesperson Jason Pearson says the organization recognizes the importance of survivor leadership and will include it in their part of the effort.
If you are a victim of human trafficking or know someone who is, there are several resources available.