Houston’s Fight Against Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is a worldwide problem. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), it is estimated that every year 20.9 million people are victims of human traffickers; 1.5 million of these instances happen in North America alone. In a document titled “Assessing the Threat of Human Trafficking in Texas,” which was created by the Texas government in 2014, Texas had the second highest number of incoming tips to the NHTRC hotline in the nation. Human trafficking is one of the most prolific and fastest growing businesses in organized crime.
Houston has been identified as a hub for human trafficking. There are several reasons for this. Houston’s proximity to the I-10 corridor, which is a primary human trafficking route, is one of the biggest reasons. Others include its closeness to the border, seaports, and national airports. There are also many major sporting events, national conventions, and other highly populated events that create high demand for those in the commercial sex industry.
The city of Houston is taking a stand against human trafficking and is implementing actions to fight this criminal activity. On June 30, 2015, Mayor Annise Parker announced that Minal Patel Davis had been appointed to the newly created position of Special Advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking. According to the press release from the Houston mayor’s office, “Davis will coordinate with City, County, State, and Federal law enforcement and pursue and maintain relationships with all levels of government to best coordinate efforts and messaging around the issue of human trafficking.” The mayor’s office also states that they have already created an ambitious plan to combat trafficking, which involves engaging community members, city officials, experts in the field, and survivors to help locate causes of human trafficking and the steps needed to prevent it.
Interview with Minal Patel Davis Special Advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking
Though just appointed in June 2015, Ms. Davis is already taking great strides to combat human trafficking in Houston. She is passionate and determined to stamp out this crime, and CKW Luxe is thankful to have the opportunity to learn from her.
CKW Luxe: What are the various forms of human trafficking?
Minal Patel Davis: Sex and labor trafficking are the two forms of human trafficking. Sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to
induce a person to engage in a commercial sex act. In cases where the victim is under the age of 18, no force, fraud, or coercion is required for it to be considered human trafficking. Labor trafficking includes using force, fraud, or coercion to subject someone to involuntary servitude (peonage, debt bondage, and bonded labor) or slavery. It is basically brokering a person for labor or services with those elements involved. There is a nuanced difference between people who are trafficked for labor services and those that experience wage theft or poor working conditions. The latter have the freedom of movement, while trafficking victims do not.
CKW: Can you give us a picture of the typical victim of human trafficking (age, sex, race, etc.)? What factors create a bigger risk?
MPD: There is no one profile for a human trafficking victim; it varies because of the different forms of trafficking. I know the service providers that I speak with on the Mayor’s Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking work with a wide range of clients of varying ages. Many who are victimized in this manner are LGBTQ teenagers who have run away from home. Teenagers who experienced sexual abuse, neglect, or rejection at home, and adult victims with a past of sexual abuse or violence are very much at risk. A lack in the most basic of human needs—love, affirmation and affection—makes them vulnerable. Anything that makes someone financially vulnerable, especially circumstances that make people unable to provide for their needs, such as housing and food, also creates a risk. Finally, undocumented foreign nationals or those that hold temporary visas can be at the risk of human trafficking as well.
CKW: What usually happens to victims of human trafficking?
MPD: There are various forms of violence, manipulation, and control used by a trafficker. They range from confiscating a victim’s identification to threatening to harm family to filling emotional voids before a bait and switch, such as asking them to sleep with a friend, because the exploiter needs money.
CKW: What actions have been taken in the past to reduce human trafficking, and what results have occurred?
MPD: In 2012, Mayor Parker established the former Task Force, now known as the Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking (HAC-HT). They helped establish the Human Trafficking Unit within HPD. HAC-HT was recently restructured to include more stakeholders in order to take a community driven approach to the issue. This has helped foster a great deal of natural collaboration amongst agencies that may not have been in the same room otherwise, which better leverages Houston’s available resources.
CKW: What actions are being planned for the future?
MPD: Mayor Parker is deeply committed to this issue and is determined to see Houston emerge as a national model, rather than continually being identified as a hub of intense trafficking activity. We are teaming up with the Mayor’s Special Assistant on Homeless Initiatives to address an identified gap and come up with housing solutions for victims found in our city. The City is applying for federal funding for the first time in this area by partnering with an agency in Galveston and connecting Houston service providers with under-utilized resources within the Houston Health Department. The City is also in the process of posting DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Blue Campaign posters in additional languages at Hobby and IAH airports. These are just a few of the actions taking place.
CKW: Can you explain more about your new role as Special Advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking? What are the expectations of the position and its expected impact on this problem?
MPD: I am responsible for coordinating services and funding in the field, as well as making policy recommendations, so that we have field assessments to determine baselines, services, coordination efforts, funding, and housing. Once the baselines are established, we can start to serve as a national model that has some bite. I work on engaging City Council members, community experts, and survivors of human trafficking to establish a standard of and formalize how victims are treated from intake to reintegration. I am identifying the root causes of human trafficking, while inviting organizations to build capacity to bridge access to services. Finally, I am also establishing relationships with national organizations that report on regional human trafficking data to show that while Houston is a human trafficking hub, it is also a solution center. The expected impact of all of this is better reintegration of survivors to prevent re-victimization and set a tone that Houston does not welcome this kind of activity, so that one day, human trafficking will end all together.
CKW: What types of programs are currently available to help victims?
MPD: There are case managers who provide trauma-informed care to victims and link them to the services they need. From a government perspective, the most valuable service we have to offer victims are health care needs through the health department. We are taking a closer look at housing as well. There are also organizations that may or may not sit on HAC-HT that offer additional services, like immigration services, substance abuse counseling, and job skills/readiness programs.
CKW: What approach or strategies are you deploying to address the issue at the City level, and how can the donor community get involved?
MPD: In short, we are looking to create a rock-solid safety net and systemize the approach for victims found in our city. I think the donor community can best support these systemization efforts by funding the issue collaboratively. The traditional way of funding social issues sometimes fragments the response. To end human trafficking, we will need to take steps that enable us to work together. My preference is that the donor community come together to support the city’s initiative and make it possible for us to do a large scale RFP (Request for Proposal) amongst the members who sit on the Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking and other agencies that may not sit on it, but will be needed in the future. We think that’s the best way to bring the community together around this. If there are donors or community members who are interested in funding organizations, they can choose from a variety of them, a lot of whom are members of our Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking. Those members are listed on our website: humantraffickinghouston.org.
CKW: In what other ways can the community help?
MPD: They can be our eyes and ears. First, they should seek out training or educate themselves on the topic. One way to do this is by going to humantraffickinghouston.org. There is information on how to report a tip on this website. We also recommend reporting any tips to the national hotline as well. Their number is 1-888-373-7888.
CKW: Reports say that human trafficking spikes around major sporting events. What planning efforts are in place as Houston gets ready to host Super Bowl 2017?
MPD: Firstly, the Mayor’s Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking is generating increased demand for human trafficking training, by reaching out to the hotel and transportation industries. We are preparing to conduct large scale
trainings with our local training partner, as well as working with national partners to increase capacity around training efforts. Secondly, Houston’s Super Bowl Host committee members also sit on this council, so we have an open line of communication with them. Thirdly, we recently visited the Bay Area and learned about their organized efforts around Super Bowl 50 in February 2016. We plan to have ongoing dialogue with them before and after the game. Finally, the best thing to do is to use the publicity that comes with a large sporting event to raise awareness about the issue and make sure that the messaging leading up to the event creates an atmosphere that makes it too risky to engage in that activity.
Interview with Mayor Parker of Houston
CKW Luxe had the honor of sitting down with Mayor Annise Parker to discuss the serious issue of human trafficking as well as happenings in Houston as a whole. With her terms as mayor coming to an end, we also wanted to honor her for the great work she has done in Houston and ask her about her hopes for Houston’s future. Mayor Parker is a leader who doesn’t ask for thanks and believes in fighting for change. Many of the changes she has made in Houston are unseen by the common citizen, but provide the necessary foundation for Houston to succeed in the years to come.
CKW: What made you want to create the Special Advisor Position for Human Trafficking?
Mayor Parker: We know we have a problem with human trafficking in Houston. There’s not anything special about Houston, but we’re a major city, a port city, and in a border state. All of those things come together to contribute to our human trafficking chal-
lenges. First, I created a task force to bring together the greatest providers and to see what the landscape was like here in Houston. Then, I created a division within the Houston police department to take care of the law enforcement piece, but I needed someone who could spearhead change. I had seen the results in resolving homelessness by putting one person with passion in the right position and empowering her to take charge. That’s why I chose to create this special advisory position. I know there are many cities working on the issues of human trafficking, but this particular structure fits well with what we have in Houston. Since Minal is housed in the mayor’s office, it’s clear that she has the backing of my administration, which will help her get things done.
CKW: Could you please give us more information on how Minal was chosen for this position?
MP: We had only met a couple of times before I chose her for the position, but she had knowledge, passion, and energy. I have discovered over the years that those three things in combination can make things happen. Though she might not have the experience of others who have been working in the field for a long time, her passion and energy make up for that. She is a very quick study. She has reached out to professionals across the country, and I believe that in a very short time, Houston will be setting the standard nationwide for how we address human trafficking.
CKW: What are your hopes and expectations for this position and its expected impact on the problem of human trafficking?
MP: I don’t expect success overnight. This is big business. Human trafficking exists because it is very lucrative. There are vulnerable populations, particularly vulnerable women, domestically and around the globe, that fall prey to this. It’s not something that I think we can end, but we can control it to a much stronger degree. We can beat it back, but it’s going to take constant effort. I don’t want Houston to be known as the number one city in America for human trafficking, and I want to make sure that the most egregious and awful forms are stamped out.
CKW: What actions have you put into place to make sure that the fight against human trafficking continues after your term as mayor has ended?
MP: I’m hoping that we achieve enough success early and have a united community behind us to keep the momentum going. I have also identified a funding source, not just the human trafficking unit within the Houston Police Department, but also for Minal’s position and the work that she needs to do. There’s a dedicated revenue stream. She is not going to have to compete for funding, because this money is specifically set aside to address human trafficking.
CKW: Do you have any desired actions you’d like to see Houston citizens take to help the cause?
MP: The biggest issue is lack of awareness. It can happen right under people’s noses, and they don’t realize it. Human trafficking is domestic and international. It is sex trafficking, but it’s also labor trafficking. It’s all illegal, and it’s all important to stamp out, so people ought to be aware. There are legitimate massage therapy centers and parlors across the city, but there are also those that are fronts for human trafficking. Something as simple as the nail salon you choose to patronize can help, knowing whether the women who work there are able to come and go freely or are working off a labor debt. You can pick up clues, if you just open your eyes to them, and we’re making some of that information available. There are also a lot of nonprofit organizations that work with trafficking victims. One of the keys to trafficking is that people who are trafficked have no resources or support network. They have nowhere to turn. So once you take them out of the situation, where do they go? Supporting the organizations that help them later on can be very beneficial. What I don’t want is for people to go to bars or cantinas trying to do their own undercover work. We have police officers and trained professionals for that, but people who give us tips and provide us information are invaluable.
CKW: What are your hopes for Houston’s future? What changes would you like to see?
MP: I hope Houston continues to be the fast-growing, cosmopolitan, and energetic city that it is today. We are already arguably America’s most international and diverse city, and I hope that continues. I put a lot of energy into expanding our international cause, and I think that it will continue. We’ve made a lot of strides in investing back into ourselves. We’re putting more money into streets and drainage. We’re also putting more money into our water and sewer infrastructure, the kind of things that no one sees. A city is a platform upon which people build their lives, so by investing in the things people don’t see and investing over the long term, we build a stronger platform. In just a few short years, the investment we are making today will really begin to pay off, and Houston will be poised for tremendous growth. We just have to make sure that the economic divide that exists in every city, doesn’t tear Houston apart. We have to make sure that Houston is a city of opportunity and that there’s a chance, no matter how a person starts out in life, to succeed.
CKW: During your terms as mayor, what have you found the most
MP: I have the opportunity to directly impact people’s lives through
the decisions I make and the ordinances that we craft, but there are
two things that I’m most invested in. The first is creating parks and
green space in Houston. I’m so excited about the bio-greenway
initiatives, where we are putting a hiking and bike trail on every
little river that goes through Houston. We are also vastly expanding
our park space. My other passion is the work we are doing on
homelessness. We’ve done a better job, more than any other big
city in America, of reducing the number of homeless men and women
on our streets. We have been honored by the White House for being
able to say that we have virtually ended veterans’ homelessness in
Houston. There may be another homeless veteran, but there are resources in place for every homeless veteran that wants housing. That is a huge milestone.
CKW: What has been your proudest moment as mayor of Houston?
MP: There are many things that I’m proud of. My first inauguration, where everything was possible, is my proudest moment, but then the harsh reality of budgets, the economy, and differing ideas hit me in the face. I’m well pleased with the work I’ve been able to do though. As I’ve mentioned, I’m particularly proud of the initiative for parks and green space and homelessness, but I’m also very proud of the work done in our infrastructure. No one’s going to see the impact a lot of the work I’ve done has made for a decade, but I’ll be able to see it, look back on it, and be proud.
CKW: What will you miss the most about being the mayor after your term ends?
MP: The great people I work with. There’s only one real perk of being the mayor, it’s the good news and the bad news, and that is that I have a security detail. I never have to find a parking space and having someone to drive for me is fabulous! Having the security detail is not my favorite thing though. There are benefits to it, but it means there’s someone with me all of the time. That took a lot of getting used to, but I’m not looking forward to driving and finding my own parking space at all.
CKW: You have made great changes in Houston as mayor. What advice would you give to those who want to make positive changes in their own communities?
MP: I didn’t start my career in activism as mayor. I started as an active community volunteer when I was in high school. I was an active volunteer in college. Then I spent twenty years in the oil and gas industry. Originally, one of the reasons I ran for city council was I realized that I was working to support my volunteer habit. Each one of us has the ability to make change in our own communities and neighborhoods. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It doesn’t take a lot of money. It just takes an interest, a passion, and a willingness to get engaged. Each one of us has the power in our own hands to change the world.Human trafficking is a serious issue in Houston and around the world, but it is not a hopeless one. The city of Houston is not giving up until there are no more victims of these atrocious crimes, and you can help. Get and stay informed about human trafficking by visiting humantraffickinghouston.org or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at traffickingresourcecenter.org. Use the things you have learned to become aware of opportunities to volunteer and funding needed. Most importantly, do not stay silent. If you witness a case of human trafficking or know someone who is suffering, seek help. Share what you know with your local police department or by calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. Human traffickers depend on creating a life of solitude, hopelessness, and a belief that there is nowhere to turn to in their victims. Together, we can show that we do care and are willing to fight to create a better life for human trafficking victims.