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County agrees to fund shelter for sex-trafficking victims

County leaders worry the money won't be available

In a split vote, Multnomah County Commissioners approved funding a local shelter for sex-trafficking victims.

The motion, championed by Commissioner Diane McKeel, who represents East Multnomah County on the board, passed 3-2 on Thursday, Sept. 8, with McKeel and commissioners Loretta Smith and Judy Shiprack voting yes.

Board Chairman Jeff Cogen and Commissioner Deborah Kafoury cast no votes, voicing concerns that the funding would be cut in pending budget reductions.

McKeel has become a vocal opponent of human trafficking, or what she calls the commercial sexual exploitation of children. With Interstate 5 running through the Portland-metro region, victims and those profiting from the sex-trafficking industry are increasingly found in East County, she said.

During an FBI sting in February 2009, Portland yielded the second-highest number of sex trafficking arrests and victims in a 30-city sting conducted by FBI agents and local police. Seven girls and six pimps were taken into custody at four sites across the Portland-metro area, including Gresham. Another 14 adult female prostitutes were arrested, as were three clients, or 'johns.'

As defined by federal law, human trafficking victims are subjected to force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation.

McKeel has testified before the U.S. Senate about local efforts to combat human trafficking, including the need for a local shelter for sex-trafficking victims.

Secure shelters are needed to give safe refuge to girls and boys wanting to escape their pimps, McKeel said. Otherwise, pimps who are arrested can threaten and harm their victims, who are key witnesses in the cases against them. Often, the victims are sucked back into a life they hoped to leave, and without witnesses to testify against them, the pimps walk free.

The vote approved about $258,500 to partially fund a five- to seven-bed facility for victims of sex trafficking. The city of Portland, and a contingency of local churches that raised $45,000 for the shelter, also are funding it.

In addition, federal grants could help support the program, which is estimated to cost $410,000 a year.

Twelve people, including Gresham resident Jessica Richardson, testified in favor of funding the shelter.

Richardson spent 14 months being trafficked along the I-5 corridor starting at age 17 after meeting her pimp at a Portland restaurant. When she finally mustered the courage to escape him, there were no resources for her to start over.

'I had nowhere to go, no help,' she said.

Unable to find a job - 'even at McDonalds' - she returned to the sex industry for three more years 'because there were no other options,' Richardson said. 'Funding for these beds is the first step toward a new life.'

Commissioner Smith recalled going on a ride-along with Portland police on 82nd Avenue and seeing officers stop a 12- or 13-year-old girl. Her purse contained the tools of the trade in two forms of protection - condoms and a butcher knife.

'Please, take me somewhere else,' the girl pleaded, eyeing her pimp who was watching from across the street.

'And we didn't have any place to take her,' Smith said. 'There is no housing for human trafficking victims here locally - none. This is going to be the only way that they have out.'

The commercial exploitation of girls and boys, young women and men, is so lucrative - and so rarely successfully prosecuted - that gangs are now selling girls instead of drugs to fund their operations, Smith added.

'They get less jail time, so they've switched the game up,' she said.

Cogen and Kafoury expressed support for the shelter, but said the county simply can't afford to fund it.

'It doesn't, to me, feel fiscally responsible to take this action today, a week before we're going to be considering $12 million in cuts to the county's budget,' Cogen said.

Kafoury, who got choked up talking about the vulnerability of those the shelter would help, also said it wouldn't be responsible to vote for funding 'when I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, and I don't see the funding.'