Serving Victims of a Devastating Epidemic — Child Sex Trafficking
In the six years that Athena House has been operating as a shelter for youth survivors of sex trafficking in Portland, Oregon, staff members have seen youth who come through its doors build new lives that fit their goals — not the desires of their traffickers.
One young lady who came to Athena House was interested in working with animals, so staff helped her find volunteer opportunities in that field. Now an adult with a child of her own, she has a career as an animal trainer. Another young lady who had never cooked anything more complicated than Top Ramen discovered a love for cooking at Athena House. “By the time she left, she had a part-time job as a line cook in Portland,” said Sarah Nedeau, director of runaway youth services at Janus Youth Programs.
Janus Youth Programs, a Portland nonprofit and Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantee that serves runaway and homeless youth, created Athena House to serve the specific needs of youth survivors of sex trafficking. The shelter opened in October 2011, amid a growing regional awareness of domestic human trafficking. In 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland warned of a “devastating epidemic of child sex trafficking” in the metropolitan area and released a report documenting that 469 children were victims of sex trafficking in the four years prior.
Athena House has space for up to seven youth at a time and serves ages 14 to 21 regardless of gender. Each resident gets a private room, and Nedeau said giving the youth privacy and control over their space is important for their trauma recovery. Youth can stay for one night or up to 18 months, depending on their needs.
The shelter offers a variety of activities, along with daily case management that is culturally specific to youth who have experienced sex trafficking. Janus Youth Programs also tries to engage youth in employment or education opportunities, and partners with another nonprofit, LifeWorks Northwest, to provide confidential support and mental health services, as needed.
Athena House’s staff approach their work with trafficking victims using a harm reduction model. “Many youth will likely leave and come back, and leave and come back, so there should be space for that programmatically,” Nedeau said. The shelter is a voluntary program that meets youth with positive regard when they return.
Athena House now serves more than 20 youth each year — 130 total since the shelter opened its doors. Janus Youth Programs also supports survivors through its street outreach program and is expanding its service area to meet the needs of trafficked youth. In April 2017, Janus Youth Programs received a grant from Washington State to conduct street outreach and case management to trafficked youth on the Washington side of the Portland metro area.
Read more about recognizing and assisting youth victims of domestic sex trafficking in the FYSB publication “Bought and Sold.”