- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Jennifer Unangst is forever thankful that her mother didn’t give up on her when she ran away from her San Diego home at age 15, became a meth addict, crashed in dirty hotels and worked in the sex industry.

Three years later, her mom found Unangst and dragged her to a residential treatment center.

She remembers the immense feeling of relief when she walked into what was then called Bethany House in California.

“It changed my life,” recalled Unangst, now 45. “I remember crawling in the bed they gave me and realizing it was the first bed I would be safe in.”

Unangst now works for the Oregon-based nonprofit Compassion First, a Christian relief organization that is partnering with The Salvation Army to provide a similar safe haven in downtown Portland for women who have been victims of sex trafficking.

Compassion First is raising money to cover the costs for women 18 and older to fill at least 10 of the 42 single-occupancy rooms on three newly refurbished floors of the Salvation Army’s building at Southwest Second Avenue and Burnside.

“Very rarely is there the kind of hand-in-glove compatibility between two programs. What Compassion First strives to do runs parallel to what we’re doing, trying to help vulnerable women,” said Mark Fagerstrom, the Salvation Army’s executive director. “It’s a good partnership.”

The newly renovated rooms resemble Spartan dormitory rooms, but are clean with a bed and linen, a wardrobe closet, small dresser and chairs. The Nines Hotel has donated plush white slippers for each tenant. A shared bathroom is on each of the three floors and there’s plan to add a kitchenette to each floor.

“The most fundamental need is for survivors to go to some sort of safe house or facility so they can continue receiving victim advocacy services,” said Bickey Lloyd, development director for Compassion First. “Providing a room that has a door on it so a survivor can choose to shut it and lock it — that’s significant for someone who has been controlled for who knows how many years of their life.”

The Salvation Army expects to fill the other transitional rooms with homeless women who can afford the $500-a-month rent. Length of stay may be a year or more, Fagerstrom said.

A Multnomah County report released in January found support systems in place for young victims of sex trafficking, but once a victim becomes an adult, that support wanes in the metro Portland area.

Sex trafficking is defined as engaging in prostitution or other commercial sex acts under force or coercion.

“Victimization doesn’t end when a child turns 18. However, often services do,” the report said.

Several agencies are taking steps to address this gap. Janus Youth is now accepting sex trafficking victims up to age 21, and the Sexual Assault Resource Center is offering services to through age 25. Lifeworks Northwest also has a program to help victims get services when they transition from their teens to young adulthood.

Compassion First, founded in August 2007, opened its first sex-trafficking shelter for women in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, in May 2010. Two years later, Compassion First paid then-Portland police Sgt. Mike Geiger - who was supervising human trafficking investigations — to visit its shelter in Indonesia and help train police there how to identify victims and provide support.

Geiger, who retired from the Police Bureau in late 2014, now works on contract as a local program coordinator for Compassion First and helped connect Compassion First with the Salvation Army.

“We have a significant number of people whose level of need is extraordinarily high, so we wanted to figure out how we can help,” Geiger said. “We’re working to remove another barrier for these women, provide a room to keep them safe and allow them some dignity.”

Compassion First also plans to provide 50 hours of training to Salvation Army case managers and staff on how to support traumatized women.

Unangst plans to work out of an office at the Salvation Army building as an advocate for the women. She wasn’t involved in sex trafficking, but was involved in some prostitution and pornography to support her drug addiction as a young adult.

What made a difference in Unangst’s life was having staff at a safe house who didn’t judge her, she said.

“They loved us unconditionally and taught us that we have value and have a purpose in life,” Unangst said. “That is why I am so passionate about the work we do at Compassion First.”


Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com

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