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The port city’s easy access from two major highways makes it an obvious hub for the Interstate 5 corridor, a common trafficking route that stretches from California to Washington state. This leads traffickers to Portland’s many homeless children and runaways, one-fourth to one-third of whom are solicited by pimps within 48 hours of being on the street. Underage victims often are listed online, making them vulnerable to an even wider market.

Washington state’s stronger laws and stricter penalties have forced many pimps from the Seattle area into Portland as well, but with only two vice detectives, the Portland Police Department’s ability to crack down is limited.

Sgt. Justus said the tiny size of the force is a serious problem. Seattle has two shifts of four vice detectives each, and cities such as Las Vegas have far more. Although city government has become aware of the deficiency, nothing has been done to strengthen police department’s vice squad.

The most prohibitive factor is the lack of secure shelters for victims. Far from being unique to Portland, the deficiency is nationwide. Fewer than 100 shelter beds are available in the U.S. for trafficking victims, and most other facilities are not appropriate to their needs.

Like Elesia, children remain in danger during trials — if they stay on the radar long enough to reach that point. Many run back to the street or are found by their pimps.

“My evidence runs away,” Sgt. Geiger said.

These children, he said, often immediately re-enter the business. Sgt. Geiger, Mr. Saltzman and others in Portland are formulating a plan for a shelter and doing what they can to stop the cycle.

A pilot program is under way in Portland, where Multnomah County organizations will experiment with providing for victims’ rent in existing housing and offering the specific counseling services that victims of trafficking need.

The overwhelming input from these teens is that they need healing as victims instead of treatment as the criminals they have been told they are.

“Their bodies may be grown up, they may be grown up in some ways because they understand things they shouldn’t,” Sgt. Geiger said, “but what I hear screaming out to me is, these are children.”