Helping Them Feel Valued
ERIN MEYER cared about human trafficking before such caring was cool.
A victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse as a youth and in high school, Meyer actually got her career start working as a victim advocate for a hotline in the Washington, D.C., area.
“I recognized that it can happen to anybody and I wanted to support people in getting the help that they need and to empower them to recognize the options that are out there,” Meyer says.
After graduating from the University of Maryland, Meyer worked as a supervisor on the National Human Trafficking Hotline in Washington, D.C., from 2008–2012.
“Human trafficking was still not very well known when I started,” Meyer said. “It was interesting to watch people’s understanding grow around the issue during the years that I was there.
“We would get a variety of calls on the national hotline from johns, victims, and people who just wanted information.”
Meyer joined The Salvation Army five years ago and is now the organization’s anti–human trafficking program manager in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“When I worked on the national hotline, we used The Salvation Army as a resource in many states and cities. People would call, looking for services. I knew The Salvation Army was a lead organization on the topic of human trafficking,” Meyer said.
Praise from the FBI
In 2012, Meyer began working out of divisional headquarters in Cincinnati when End Slavery Cincinnati, a local anti-trafficking coalition, became a program of The Salvation Army. Meyer had been serving as the manager of the program.
“Erin’s passion, commitment, and knowledge have been a great blessing to The Salvation Army,” said Michelle Hannan, the director of the Army’s anti–human trafficking program in Central Ohio. “She has created a thriving, effective ministry that is changing the lives of human trafficking survivors in her community.”
Meyer was recently honored with the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award, which was created in 1990 to “honor individuals and organizations for their efforts in combating crime, terrorism, drugs, and violence in America,” according to the FBI.
“These leaders, selected by their area FBI field office for their efforts in 2017, have demonstrated outstanding contributions to their local communities through service,” the FBI said. “The FBI is grateful for the work of each of these individuals and organizations on behalf of their communities.”
Meyer and her seven-member team in Cincinnati are involved in a host of anti-human trafficking efforts, including two drop-in centers, both known as “The Well,” at the Cincinnati Citadel Corps and the Cincinnati West Side Corps.
Light in the darkness
In the last year, Meyer has organized a monthly outreach to local hotels that is run in conjunction with Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) and involves a canteen (mobile food and beverage) from the Center Hill Corps. Team members knock on hotel doors and use a public address system to alert the women. Meyer said the women receive “food, spiritual support, and ministry.”
“We’re the 24-hour responder for the community in general, including hospitals and shelters,” Meyer said. “We work with law enforcement and we serve as the primary responder in the community for trafficking cases.
“We work with law enforcement when they do operations. We either respond on site or we work with them after the fact and then coordinate services for the victims.
“We provide case management and we work with the victims to identify their needs. We’re just helping individuals be who they want to be and support them in finding their place in life.”
Meyer, who exhibits a humble spirit, puts the spotlight on victims. She said she was happy the award helped raise awareness about human trafficking.
“It was a very humbling experience to know that there are so many others who care about the issue and who are supporting the work that the team does,” she said.
A life of purpose
For Meyer, it’s clear that her work with The Salvation Army is not your ordinary 9–5 job.
“It’s very satisfying,” she said. “It feels good to have a job that has such purpose and that impacts others. It’s a very rewarding experience.
“It’s about helping people who maybe don’t feel that they are worthy of more. I enjoy helping them to realize their worth and helping them to find their goals and to see themselves as beautiful and worthy. I think that’s a big motivator.”
Meyer and her staff are no strangers to the streets. They sometimes walk the rough Price Hill neighborhood around the West Side Corps before group meetings. They pass out snacks, hygiene items, and information. It’s a well–known “track” for commercial sex solicitation.
“We also go out weekly at night to different areas and provide outreach cards,” Meyer said. “Through these experiences, a lot of individuals find spirituality to be a big part of their recovery and survival. We get a lot of requests for prayer and spiritual support while we’re out at night.”
Meyer, who was raised in an interfaith home, is a seeker herself. She has attended churches and synagogues in Cincinnati, but has not found a place to worship yet.
“I am open and share beliefs from both Christianity and Judaism,” Meyer said. “For me, serving the community and knowing the value that faith has in people’s recovery, makes me proud to work for The Salvation Army. I’m not an expert on spiritual healing, but I know there are officers and others on the Salvation Army team who I can rely on. They can help the individuals I’m dealing with find healing here in Cincinnati.”
While most people may not think of Ohio as ground zero for human trafficking, the reality is something different. Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland, and other areas are plagued with it.
“Every state has a different landscape that makes it vulnerable to this type of exploitation,” Meyer said. “For Ohio, there’s a lot of highways and then there is the proximity to Canada. There’s the opiate epidemic. There’s gang violence. There’s migrant labor. All those different elements are vulnerabilities for trafficking, but they’re not necessarily unique to Ohio.”
Meyer, who is on the front lines of the battle every day, said her side is winning the war.
“We’re making strides,” she said. “We’re helping people get out of their situation. We’re educating people on how to identify exploitation. We’re also helping youth to recognize the traffickers’ recruitment tactics so we can prevent trafficking. I think we’re making progress.”
Bigger dreams ahead
Does Meyer foresee a day when the scourge of human trafficking will disappear?
“I don’t know if there will ever be a day when people don’t exploit other people, but I’d like to think we’ll see a day when it’s less prevalent,” she said.
Meyer said she would also like to see a day when there is more housing for human trafficking survivors, similar to the New Hope/New Home initiative in Philadelphia and the proposed Hue Jackson Survivors of Human Trafficking Residence in Cleveland.
“A big need in our area is housing for trafficking victims,” she said. “That’s probably the next biggest step I’d like to see here for our program.”
Meyer said she enjoys being a part of the Eastern Territory’s human trafficking team, a network of advocates that, like her, features mostly young women committed to the fight.
“I feel like we support each other a lot, both from a personal and a professional standpoint,” she said. “We’re always challenging each other to find new solutions. We’re just very supportive of each other and it’s an encouraging environment to work in.
“It’s an opportunity to try things and learn what one program is doing in another state—what’s not working, what’s working—and how that transforms. It’s real teamwork.”
True to the Founder
Jamie Manirakiza, the Eastern Territory’s anti–human trafficking specialist, called Meyer a “fearless leader” in the fight against human trafficking in Ohio.
“She has dedicated long hours to developing strong victim services, responding first–hand to a 24/7 victim hotline, drop–in center work, case management, and much more,” Manirakiza said. “She has been a humble advocate in the fight against human trafficking and we are so proud of her achievements.”
Major Sue Dunigan, the Eastern Territory’s social justice secretary, said she is proud of Meyer and her dedication to the Salvation Army’s mission.
“She truly exemplifies the heart of Founder William Booth’s directive of ‘Others’ by serving people that the world sees as invisible,” Dunigan said.
by Robert Mitchell