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Cast Opens New Shelter for Survivors of Human Trafficking During the Pandemic

The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (Cast) was awarded $3.54 million from the City of Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) to purchase additional housing for survivors of human trafficking.  

“We are fortunate to have a leader on human trafficking like CAST in our city, where we are no strangers to the horrors of human trafficking,”  said Los Angeles City Council President, Nury Martinez. “Protecting women and children from abuse has been one of my top priorities and I am so proud to provide CAST with this funding because this organization is changing lives in our communities,” remarked Los Angeles City Council President, Nury Martinez.

This funding has come at a time when the need for safe housing has been particularly urgent for human trafficking survivors. During COVID-19, the amount of survivors seeking shelter with Cast has been nearly a third higher than normal. “100% of survivors who called our 24-hour emergency hotline during the pandemic were homeless. They were escaping both the traffickers and the pandemic,” said Rebecca Amado-Sprigg, Cast’s Associate Director of Equitable Housing.

Since the pandemic began, Cast has seen a 185% increase in urgent trafficking cases from the same time last year. As Cast moved swiftly to adapt its comprehensive programs, one program that could not be virtual was shelter.

Taking precaution even before LA’s Safer at Home order was declared, Cast began moving survivors out of its shelter and into private hotel rooms in order to reduce their exposure to the virus. This ensured that 100% of trafficking survivors who came to Cast had access to safe housing and comprehensive care.

“Never would I have imagined that we would operate our shelter for over a year from a hotel. The pandemic forced us to act fast and reinvent best practices to keep our staff and survivors safe. Thanks to our partnership with the City of Los Angeles, this new shelter gives survivors the opportunity to see past the pandemic and into their futures. It’s transformative,” said Kay Buck, Cast CEO.

Cast will be opening the doors to its new emergency shelter in August. By combining safe housing with trauma-informed services, Cast is ending the cycle of violence and homelesness, and ensuring trafficking survivors have every opportunity to lead independent and fulfilling lives.“We are proud partners to Cast because they have an excellent track record in providing shelter services to survivors of human trafficking. Cast designs shelters that feel like a home where one belongs,” says Abigail Marquez, General Manager of the Los Angeles Community Investment for Families Department.

Organization Empowers Survivors Of Human Trafficking

While Mayor Eric Garcetti’s edict for Angelenos to stay home and shelter in place is a good way to flatten the curve on the dreaded coronavirus, it could sound the death knell for someone cooped up with an abuser or human trafficker.

“Safer at home is not the right message to our people,” said Kay Buck, the CEO and executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). “All of our stuff is still up and running during the pandemic, so they don’t have to be sheltered in place with an abuser. Victims should always feel like they have a place to go and a place to call.”

Buck said if anyone is being abused and needs help they can call (888) 539-2373, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

CAST is a Los Angeles–based nonprofit organization that is working to put an end to modern slavery and human trafficking through comprehensive, life-transforming services to survivors and a platform to advocate for groundbreaking policies and legislation.

Over the past two decades, the organization has supported thousands of survivors through every phase of their journey to freedom from counseling, to legal resources, to housing, educational and leadership training and mentorship. Through these programs, CAST has helped empower survivors to overcome their traumatic pasts and become leading voices in shaping policy and public awareness to ultimately put an end to what is considered one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises of the 21st century.

“We are a comprehensive service provider,” Buck said. “We have a lot of different programs where a survivor goes from escape to reintegrating into their community. We have a management program and a full-service legal program complete with 10 attorneys who represent our clients. 

“We also have a survival advocate program with Dignity Health where a survivor goes and works with health practitioners who are there as a source of support. Survivors are more comfortable talking to someone who has gone through what they’ve gone through.”

CAST, which serves about 1,500 persons a year, shares information with various task forces. They collaborate with the FBI, the attorneys’ general offices, local law enforcement and the state Legislature where Buck said they were making headway “before the coronavirus hit.”

For 25 years, Buck, 50, has advocated for human trafficking victims. It’s something she’s been passionate about ever since she left college. She became inspired by a professor who knew she loved women’s rights and foreign policy issues.

“My professor connected me with people in Asia and the rest is history,” said Buck, a married mother of one teenage girl who she calls “the inspiration for this work.” 

“It was an amazing learning opportunity. At that time there were no shelters or organizations set up like today. I got an in-the-trenches education. This kind of work resonates with me.”

When she returned from Asia in the 90s after a six-year stint, Buck moved to Los Angeles in 1996 and took a position as director of the Rape Prevention Resource Center at California Coalition Against Sexual Assault before taking the reins of CAST in 2003.

Buck has seen it all and warns it’s nothing like what’s seen in Hollywood movies.

“There has to be an awareness of how it really looks,” Buck said. “Movies sensationalize it because they want ratings, but it’s a disservice to the public. We rarely see cases where someone is kidnapped or chained to a bed.”

There are 21 million estimated human trafficking victims worldwide. Statistics show that human trafficking doesn’t focus on just sex trafficking.

“That’s what movies focus on, but it’s not true,” Buck said. “Traffickers have always forced their victims to commit crimes, to steal, to do sex crimes, harvest marijuana, to assault or rob convenience stores. 

“Now they have a record. Now they have a rap sheet. If they don’t do what they are told, they are often told that someone they love will be killed,” Buck added. “They will tell you they know where your mother or grandmother lives and that they will kill them if you don’t do what they say. All of this control goes into what trafficking is. They then have something over you.”

A human rights activist, Buck said human trafficking is a “different crime” because of the way it happens.

“We see more fraud and coercion than force,” she said. “Sometimes there is violence and physical restraint. More often it’s about tricking people. They dupe people into thinking they are going for a great job or a love interest. Then traffickers trick them and force them to break the law. 

“It’s amazing how cruel traffickers are. They know where to go with people’s vulnerabilities — by any means possible.”

Buck said labor trafficking happens to both boys, men, girls and women. Men and boys account for about 30% of those being trafficked.

“There are cases across the board,” she said. “We have agriculture cases, also in the hospitality industry, motels, restaurants, construction cases, domestic servitude — where immigrants are recruited abroad and sent here to serve in a home in an affluent neighborhood. Those cases are so horrible and sad. They are so isolated.”

Traffickers know no bounds, according to Buck. 

“It’s not just about young adult women,” she said. “The youngest has been 2 years old and the oldest has been 84. It’s incredible to walk the journey alongside survivors. Survivors are not always victims. They are some of the most resilient people. They deserve a second chance in life and to have their records expunged and to have a community that will embrace them.”

What’s even harder to believe, said Buck, is that most of the trafficking is happening right before the public’s eyes.

“I tell people I’m almost positive you have interacted with someone who has been trafficked,” Buck said. “They are not going to say, ‘Help me, I’m being trafficked.’ It’s happening all over the world including here. It’s a global epidemic. It’s based on money. They are using fellow human beings as a commodity.”

Human trafficking is huge in California, according to Buck.

“From the national hotline, most of the calls they get come from Los Angeles,” she said. “Los Angeles is a hub. We’re the eighth largest economy in the world. It’s a profit-driven crime. Human trafficking seems like a daunting issue, but like any big issue, we tackle it as a global community or a local community. If you break things down into manageable pieces and work as a coalition, it is possible to put an end to this. We need to get cooperation from all of the different partners, or we will just hobble along.”