Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi introduced the bill to create “culturally competent” safe houses for survivors of human trafficking. Hevesi joined survivors and their advocates at City Hall on Friday. // Photo courtesy of Andrew Hevesi

Hevesi, Survivors Call for Safe Houses in the ‘Apex’ of Sex Trafficking

By David Brand

On Friday, State Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) joined survivors of human trafficking and their advocates on the steps of City Hall to call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase vital services for victims forced to perform sex work.

During the last legislative session, Hevesi introduced a bill to establish “culturally competent” short-term and long-term safe houses for survivors of human trafficking operated by nonprofit organizations that serve victims and their families. State Sen. Marty Golden (R-Bayside) introduced the senate version of the bill, which also received bipartisan support.  

“A huge thank you to the brave survivors of human trafficking who shared their personal stories and spoke out today about the need for Governor Cuomo to sign [the bill] into law,” Hevesi said at the event. “This legislation, which has unanimously passed both houses of the legislature, will provide culturally competent shelters and services for the hundreds of others who are trafficked in New York State every year.”

Assembly Member Nathalia Fernandez, City Council Member Barry Grodenchik and City Council Member Mark Gjonaj also joined Hevesi to advocate for the bill’s signature.

The law would enable survivors to access special services beyond those offered at traditional homeless and domestic violence shelters. In addition to case management, healthcare, mental health counseling, drug addiction screening and treatment, the residences for survivors of trafficking would provide language interpretation and translation services, English classes, job training, job coaching and immigration legal services. 

“To effectively shelter human trafficking survivors and restore their well-being, we must provide resources and remedies tailored to their circumstances, including their language and culture, to help them overcome their fears and regain their sense of security and self-worth,” said Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families, an organization that serves trafficking survivors. “There is desperate need for safe havens equipped for this monumental and particular task.”

Michael Polenberg, the Vice President of Government Affairs for Safe Horizon, which works with survivors of sex trafficking, said his organization urges Cuomo to sign the bill “as soon as possible.”

“At Safe Horizon, we work with a broad spectrum of trafficking survivors – men and women, children and adults, and of all gender expressions and sexual identities,” Polenberg said. “Where possible, we house trafficking survivors in our domestic violence and homeless youth shelters, but space is not always available.”

“This new legislation will create desperately needed new shelter capacity for trafficking survivors, and will help forge a path to safety and stability,” he continued.

As of press time, Cuomo’s office did not respond to request for comment.

Traffickers and pimps typically target recent immigrants, low-income individuals with substance abuse issues and transgender women of color. A recent report by The Guardian also revealed how traffickers post bail for women in jail and then threaten to revoke bail if they do not perform sex work.

Because of these complex issues, survivors of human trafficking often require intensive case management and therapy to address the trauma they have experienced, Hevesi said.

“The most essential need of survivors of human trafficking is a safe place to stay,” Hevesi said in a statement. “Homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and runaway and homeless youth shelters can all help, but only if the trafficking survivor meets each shelter system’s particular eligibility requirements.”

The issue is especially important in Queens,  which a 2013 report by WGBH in Boston called the “apex” of the Northeast’s trafficking network. The report described how human trafficking routes often run through Queens and force women to perform sex work throughout New England and other Mid-Atlantic states.

“There are vans that pick up women from Flushing every morning and take them out to Long Island,” Jimmy Lee, the executive director of Restore, an organization that rescues victims of human trafficking, told WGBH.

This morning, two people charged with sex trafficking will stand trial in Queens County Criminal Court.  Prosecutors say Terrence Jackman and Zulay Guerrero forced a 17-year-old girl and 23-year-old to perform sex work for four years in St. Albans and Springfield Gardens. Jackman allegedly stabbed one of the victims in 2016 and allegedly posted their photos on backpage.com, a website used to solicit sex workers.

Traffickers also frequently force women, especially immigrants, to perform sex work in phony massage parlors in Flushing and other Queens neighborhoods.

In November 2017, sex worker Yang Song died during a sting conducted by the New York Police Department’s Vice Enforcement Squad. Song told an undercover cop who entered the Flushing apartment where she worked she would have sex with him in exchange for $80. She fell to her death shortly after additional police officers arrived at her door.

Song was just three days away from completing a five-session counseling program mandated by the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court following a September 2017 prostitution arrest. She did not connect with a safe house.

In May, Federal agents extradited four men from Mexico after a Homeland Security investigation revealed that the men had trafficked dozens of women and girls into Corona over a 16-year period. Prosecutors say the men forced the women to have sex with up to 40 men a day and transported them to Long Island, Upstate New York and other states. Authorities sought to extradite four other men back to the US to face 23 counts of sex trafficking.

In a 2014 interview with DNAinfo, State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights)  called on the City and State to do more to protect women trafficked by gangs, especially in Corona.

“Roosevelt Avenue is a Mecca of human trafficking in Queens and throughout the five boroughs,” Peralta said. “[Gangs] are participating in bringing women from all over the world.”

 

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