Jessie, a trafficking survivor, shares her experiences of living in a shelter
Shelters for trafficking survivors in the U.S. are often called “safehouses,” but there was nothing safe about the shelter I lived in.
While living there, my medical history was used as a weapon against me. Rather than offering me support, the shelter used my mental health issues as a reason to try at all costs to push me out, even when that meant lying to the police and having them come for me with guns and handcuff me.
No confidentiality: my medical records were open for all to see
As a required part of the intake process for a survivor seeking temporary housing, most of these shelter organizations collect more information than I have ever had to disclose to anyone – including my primary care provider. At first glance, it may appear that they are doing it to see how they can support each survivor. But in my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Instead, it is first used to screen out anyone who has HIV or a serious mental health diagnosis or disability. And even worse, that information is not protected whether online or on paper. Everyone could access our medical records, including volunteers. Our files were regularly read in groups and shared with other survivors as fodder for gossip.
I reached out to the association of social workers and the state’s licensing board to attempt to hold the social workers accountable for this breach of my privacy. But since all the social workers in the shelter and in the office were unlicensed, this organization had no jurisdiction.
Of course, reporting this to upper management only led to on-site staff being even more outwardly aggressive and punitive towards us. It led to them creating false reports saying we were breaking house rules – they were trying to have us thrown out of the housing we so desperately needed. It became extremely hostile with one social worker and the house manager threatening my life.
I requested my records when I was leaving and was told that they were the property of this organization. Other women were met with the same response. How can my medical information belong to any entity other than myself? I then made this request directly to the founder of this organization, and she responded that she would not give my file to me because I would use it against them. This tells me they are fully aware that what they are doing is wrong, but they do it anyway.
I think that wherever personal health information is collected, the individual should have the right to privacy. And that someone needs to ensure this right is protected. We should not be forced to sell our rights for a place to live.
Anyone with mental health issues was forced out
Prior to my admission into this shelter, staff asked my case worker if my mental health diagnosis was controlled. Since my case worker had worked with them in the past, I got accepted.
However, after witnessing and experiencing racial discrimination and other revictimization within the shelter, I had to be admitted to hospital for mental health reasons.
The day I returned to the shelter, the program manager took me to the basement and told me I had to leave that day, that I could not stay in the shelter that night, “because we cannot accommodate anyone with serious mental health issues.” I had asked this program director for help before because of all the negative things happening within the shelter. She never responded.
I reached out to organizations that support people with mental health issues and they reached out to this shelter. As situations in the house became more and more hostile, I found myself in the hospital a few more times. I reached out to other anti-trafficking organizations to advocate on my behalf since I had no place to live. Not only did this shelter refuse to respond to any attempts at advocacy, but I was also asked to leave for disclosing what happens there.
Staff laughed at and made fun of people with mental health issues to make them want to leave. No one with any mental health issues was allowed to stay and staff would do anything to force that person to move. Some girls were forced back on to the streets or back to pimps.
I was forcibly institutionalized because I refused to leave. I was not going to live on the streets, and I had already been to the other shelter. They kept calling the police to report they had a “mentally ill woman.” When that did not get them the reaction they intended, they reported, a “mentally ill woman who is threatening to kill someone.”
Of course, the police came, saw a Black woman living in a shelter, and never even listened to anything I had to say. They got this call from a “social worker” they said, and I was handcuffed and made to leave by 6-8 police officers with guns and in full riot gear. If I really needed help, they had my doctor’s contact information and permission to contact her.
I eventually went through a process of filing a complaint against the police and holding them responsible for their actions that day. However, this shelter who intentionally made false police reports repeatedly, who caused essential government resources to be diverted when no emergency existed, they never faced any consequences.
I’m calling for shelters to be held accountable
I no longer live in shelters. But I am willing to keep asking for help to make life better for every survivor who has to live in a shelter. These organizations are private non-profits. There is zero oversight of what happens to survivors in these shelters. And they are dealing with a very vulnerable population.
I imagine an anti-trafficking world where there is an ombudsman in every city, staffed by empowered survivors and independent citizens, unaffiliated with any anti-trafficking organization. This would provide some assistance for survivors navigating their rights in these organizations.
I personally called the police when my life was threatened by staff and when staff stole from my room. I filed reports of human rights violations. I assumed the government would help and they did not. They did not even speak to me – the person who filed the complaint. It is as though we lose all our rights because we have to live in a shelter. And especially if you are Black.
And I think survivors’ voices will be stronger if we use a system that exposes what truly happens within these shelters. These shelters receive glowing reviews from volunteers and donors. Guidestar gives their stamp of approval – all without hearing from the survivors. Shouldn’t the survivor voice determine if these organizations continue to be funded by donors or supported by volunteers? I think truly goodhearted donors and volunteers would want to know.
We should not have to give up our dignity, our human rights – just because we happen to be living in a privately run shelter. Trafficking survivors need and deserve better.