Covenant House New Orleans is a safe haven for homeless and at-risk youth.
“Other people been having control of my life all my life. I was a victim of human trafficking and I’m 22 years old,” a young woman at Covenant House tells me.
Using her name might put her safety in jeopardy. Sexually molested and abused as a child, she took to the streets to get away when she was seventeen.
“I had a very rough lifestyle. So I had to do what I had to do to survive. I didn’t really at first feel afraid because I was away from where I was. And I just didn’t want to go through it anymore. I just thought I would maybe find a way to get out what I was going through.”
But things didn’t go well on the street. She came under the control of a pimp who forced her into prostitution and threatened her life constantly.
“He really, really was hard on me, like with the force and the beating. When he put the gun to my head, that’s when I really thought he was going to kill me. I thought life was over for me, and I just wanted out. I just didn’t want to deal with it no more.”
She called the police, and her pimp was arrested. But then he was released from jail, and she saw him, and had an anxiety attack.
“I had seen him one day and I really was having an anxiety attack. It just felt like I just couldn’t breath, and I just wanted to get away. He was telling me, he was saying: you always gonna be in the prostitution life. He was like, you gonna come back.”
But she was determined to put her life in a different direction. Through a victim survivor advocate at the Department of Homeland Security, she came to Covenant House where she found support and safety, and for the first time, special and free.
“Years ago we used to be called child prostitution. Now we refer to it as human trafficking,” says James Kelly, Executive Director of Covenant House New Orleans. “And we saw more and more young people coming to Covenant House in need of help and services and love and care.
“Right now in New Orleans, there’s no other crisis center for victims of human trafficking. There are other good providers of service, but there’s no other twenty-four hour program for a young woman who’s fleeing a pimp, a predator and is trying to get out of the life.”
Because Kelly and his staff noticed an increase of young people fleeing this type of abuse, they asked researchers at Loyola University to interview their clients. A report released earlier this year estimates that 86 of the young people who come to Covenant House each year are victims of human trafficking. And the researchers say this number is likely higher because people aren’t always forthcoming when it comes to sensitive topics like sexual abuse. Kelly says New Orleans isn’t doing enough, but that our city has the leadership and the will to step up their game.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to work with homeland security, and the FBI, and the police. It’s a partnership,” says Kelly. “But we, at the same point are saying, as we see more and more young people coming to us in need who have been victims of abuse, sexual assault, and rape in essence being pimped out. We’re making a commitment we’re making a commitment to saying what more can we do? Can we increase our outreach services? Can we develop more specialized services for the young woman who comes in because if you haven’t been in the life – and then, no one can ever relate.”
“It’s all about the support and help,” says the young woman. “You got to have a support system because at first I didn’t have the support system. Where I can get myself together. I really didn’t understand what I had to learn.”
But at Covenant House, she began learning. And healing.
“When you’re out there in those on the streets and you’re doing them bad things, people look at you in a whole, totally different way. I want people to look at me positive. I want them to see me shining and glowing and being a better person. When I leave this world, I really want to leave a mark on myself. I really want to accomplish a lot of things out here. I really want to be something in life.”
Written by Eve Abrams for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Learn more about Covenant House.