Doors to Salvation
An hour before the doors open, there’s already a line of women waiting on the sidewalk outside the Salvation Army’s “New Day Drop–In Center” in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.
When they’re finally inside, the women who live in the shadows find a short respite and safety from the city’s seedy sex industry.
The drop–in center has been open for a few years, but in March, The Salvation Army took another giant step in its ongoing fight against human trafficking by opening a transitional housing program in a Philadelphia suburb. The program, called “New Day, New Home,” is the first of its kind for The Salvation Army in the Eastern Territory.
While most of the referrals for the house come from law enforcement, the courts, and other agencies, the hope is that women from the drop-in center may someday find housing there.
“Many of the women who come to the drop–in center are not ready for housing yet,” explained Jamie Manirakiza, director of anti–trafficking and social services for The Salvation Army in Philadelphia. “They are looking to find safety, hope, and a space where people care about their worth and dignity. Many of them need detox, rehab, emergency housing, and criminal–justice–based advocacy.”
“New Day, New Home” is a joint initiative between Greater Philadelphia Area Services and the Pennsylvania and Delaware (PENDEL) Division.
Manirakiza said women ages 18–26 can stay at the house—free of charge—for as long as three years, including meals. The unmarked home has two apartments and can house eight trafficking survivors at a time.
The goals include getting the women education, training, therapy, permanent housing, and reuniting them with their families.
“We support them in reclaiming their voice, sense of self, and hope for the future,” Manirakiza said. “We do individual goal planning and work on helping the women become self–sufficient. It’s long–term, so we haven’t yet measured the impact since we just opened in March 2017.
“We’re at the beginning of change, but I think there’s a ton of potential for long–term growth and for individuals to take a different path once they get in there.”
Gina Valenziano, the home manager of “New Day, New Home” and a former staffer at the drop–in center, said the women follow the Safety, Emotion, Loss, and their Future (S.E.L.F.) group curriculum.
“We offer a space for healing, a space to learn skill development, and a space to be independent,” Valenziano said. “It allows them to find healing from the trauma they’ve been through. It allows them to think and focus on themselves.
“Everyone deserves a second chance, or as many chances as they need, to get where they need to be. Everyone deserves love and care, no matter what they’ve been through.”
Major Susan Ferreira, director of social services ministries for The Salvation Army in Philadelphia, said many of the women have experienced significant loss and deserve an opportunity to have a safe place to hope for the future. The quiet house in the suburbs provides the solace for that to happen.
“Some of them are still maturing,” she said. “I think this is a good target age for us to reach.”
As they recover, some of the victims have trouble sleeping, but the staff is trained to help them through their trauma, working on day and night rituals, Manirakiza said.
“Sleep is a very challenging time for many of the survivors,” she said. “The staff will engage the women in art projects or they’ll sit up and watch a movie or they’ll talk. The staff are trained to work through nighttime routines and recreating positive rituals during those crucial times when a participant might go into crisis mode.”
Manirakiza said the women are allowed to keep their phones, but a safety plan is implemented when a pimp or trafficker tries to make contact.
“It can be challenging to not go back to the life,” Manirakiza said. “The program engages people in talking about safe relationships, choices, and their future.
— Susan Santucci
Some of the women first make contact through the drop–in center. It serves as an oasis in the middle of Kensington’s “open air” street track, where heroin, crack, and commercial sexual exploitation are prevalent.
“The drop–in center is where we’re meeting them on the ground level, meeting them exactly where they are, and providing a safe space. They’re able to set goals and begin some of the work they have for themselves,” said Arielle Curry, the assistant director of human trafficking for The Salvation Army in Philadelphia.
Helping many of the women is Courtney Fyock, a victim advocate funded through The Salvation Army’s Office for Victims of Crimes task force grant.
“When they come in, we do crisis counseling,” Fyock said. “We do a lot of stabilization and then connect them with housing resources. That seems to be the number one thing they need.”
Susan Santucci, the drop–in center’s program coordinator, said the staff is “as welcoming and non–threatening as possible.
“The women can come in and get an outfit, relax, watch TV, and take a nap. It’s pretty low–key,” she said. “We believe that each one of them—no matter where she’s coming from, no matter what her situation—deserves safety, respect, and just a moment to collect herself and regain that idea of what safety looks like.
“These women are experiencing homelessness, they are getting sexually assaulted regularly, they are living in abandoned houses, they have been abused … and the wounds are deep. We’re telling these women, ‘We believe your life has value.’”
Staffer Malsiella Martinez, who serves at the drop–in center during the day and night, added, “We tell these women, ‘This is a place of refuge and a place you can call home.’ When they come here, we want them to feel valued and cared for.”
The women can also avail themselves of therapy sessions and several groups, including one focused on their spiritual lives led by Santucci and Major Martha Bone, divisional social services ministries secretary.
Santucci and Bone discuss such topics as beauty, creation, love, the fruits of the Spirit, and community.
“We plan the lessons by just knowing the women and what might speak to them,” Bone says. “We’ll talk about the topics as an open group. We ultimately want to point people to God.”
The center provides Bibles in both English and Spanish and sometimes the group just reads about women in the Bible.
“There are times when they read the passages themselves and they just start weeping,” Bone says. “God’s Word speaks for itself.”
Christ the rock
“God’s Word really speaks to them. When they read about God’s love, which is really something we throw in every single Bible study time, it’s just very powerful to them.”
Santucci said some women who have escaped the sex industry have returned to the drop–in center to tell her they now attend church. Others depend on Christ while still in the life and fighting daily battles.
“There are women who rely on their faith and are in recovery and are out of the life, and their faith is a big part of that,” she said. “Most of the women I interact with are currently going through the life and relying on Jesus and trusting in Him that He will walk them all the way through.
“I’ve had women come into my office and sit with me and weep and say, ‘I can’t imagine where I’d be without Jesus today.’ Their clothes are worn and they have scratches and bruises all over them. To me, those are humbling moments.”
Martinez recalls being asked to read Bible verses to a woman.
“We don’t force Jesus on them, but we’re probably the only ‘Jesus’ they see,” she said. “If they want prayer, I’m here. We’re called to reach the unchurched. That’s why we’re here.
“Us being here, we’re that light in the midst of darkness. We’re called to serve those who are rejected, who are outcast, and who are being dehumanized. That’s why I wake up in the morning—because I have a passion for women. They’re considered nobody in the eyes of the world, but they’re somebody in the eyes of Christ.”
by Robert Mitchell