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United Way of Delaware County president Brandon Feller participated in the Salvation Army's Human Trafficking street outreach program in Columbus. Here is his story:

Author: Brandon Feller • Published: 04/28/2014

For the past two years, the United Way of Delaware County has been involved with Central Ohio’s response to human trafficking in our own backyard. From the start, our role has been to raise awareness but it has also evolved to funder, advocate and coalition leader. 

I have received training in human trafficking, attended meetings, strategized with service providers on how to break the chains and lobbied the Ohio Senate for tougher penalties for traffickers but I had never encountered the issue face to face. Until tonight.

I wanted to see it for myself so, last night, I volunteered to be the driver for Salvation Army’s street outreach team. It is one of the few volunteer opportunities for men. We are talking about women that are repeatedly victimized by men…often since childhood. The last thing they need is to be intimidated by another man. So, the outreach team is female but they welcome male drivers…to help keep an eye out for the safety of the team. 

10:00pm. We meet up at the parking lot of the Salvation Army. It’s pouring down rain. Should be a slow night, everyone is thinking. Within 10 minutes, we meet our first friend. She is known to the program coordinator who promptly jumps out of the passenger van to give her a hug, a small bag of personal care items and a card with a number and address of a drop-in center where she can seek help. 

The Look. I learned quickly about “the look.” This is how we identify women that are forced to sell their body. You see, pop culture has taught us what a prostitute looks like. Should be easy to spot, right? Yes, and no. My experience tonight taught me that the vast majority of women do not meet the classic stereotype. There were no short skirts and high heels. There were jeans and hoodies. They blended into their surroundings…except they were someplace they shouldn’t be at that late at night and “the look.” Ok, so the look is subtle but unmistakable. Ordinary residents shuffling up and down the sidewalks don’t make eye contact but these women do. It’s fast, it’s simple but it is direct eye contact. Nothing seductive. Just basic nonverbal communication. 

Once we spotted the look, we pulled over. Often we had to double back, always careful to park ahead of them so they could see us and not feel like we snuck up from behind. Some were outgoing and open to talking, some wanted the bag of items but did not have much to say and some took the bag and card but did not stop walking for fear of being spotted by police or their trafficker. The neighborhoods have eyes. Lots of eyes. If not their trafficker, then a local drug dealer loyal to the man controlling them. 

One directly approached my window. She had not seen the van full of women and assumed I was soliciting. She was soaked from the cold rain and we offered her a ride. She declined but seemed interested to learn more about the drop-in center. “Is it nearby?” Unfortunately, it is several miles from this location but “Call us! We’ll come and get you!” the program manager says in a welcoming tone. 

Not long after this, we encounter another woman who is familiar to Salvation Army staff. Hugs follow and then a cheerful “God bless you!” from the woman as we departed. On previous meetings, this lady had indicated her utter worthlessness. Her prayer for death. Her hopelessness. We think of force as the primary tool used by traffickers but most often is fraud and coercion. Mental cruelty that creates a dependency on the trafficker for everything from food and drugs to love and protection.

As the night rolls on, we move from neighborhood to neighborhood and along major Columbus roadways meeting more and more victims of trafficking. Around a dozen in all. Pretty good for a rainy night that, I’m told, would normally produce 3 to 4 outreach opportunities. We actually saw quite a few more but they were with men and it would endanger them if we tried to talk.

For me, the most heartbreaking moments were seeing these women standing in the soaking rain waiting for the next guy to rape her, rob her or worse. The looks of pain, depression and complete hopelessness. 

And, the missed opportunities. I spotted one young girl in a convenience store parking lot, turned and moved quickly up a back alley in her direction. We were just in time to see her get into a car. 

Oddly enough though, the night was also filled with promise and grace as I witnessed these volunteers hug the women with immense compassion. No condemnation. Just hope and help. For many of these women, that was likely the only positive contact they will have with another human this week. 

Shortly after midnight, we returned to the Salvation Army parking lot with all of our care bags gone. Another successful street outreach was complete.

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