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Shine the Light

Major Sandra J. Jackson, Sarah Medina, and Major Amy A. Merchant serve the Western Pennsylvania Division in its fight against human trafficking.

Federal grant will help Army fight human trafficking.

Gratitude looked like a bright smile on Sarah Medina’s face as she thought about the wonderful support that she and her colleagues have  received in their fight against human trafficking. The latest source is coming from a new government grant. Medina, who serves as the anti–human trafficking divisional director for the Salvation Army’s Western Pennsylvania Division, has been waging a war against the scourge which, according to national statistics, has actually intensified during the COVID–19 pandemic.

“I feel grateful to be a co–leader in this effort and that the government sees what we’re doing and acknowledges what’s been done so far and with our community partners,” says Medina, who holds a Master of Social Work and is a licensed social worker.

The United States Justice Department recently announced that it will award $35 million in housing assistance grants to 73 nonprofit organizations from 33 states across the country. These grants will provide housing and services to victims of human trafficking.

The grants will allow these organizations, which include The Salvation Army, 6–24 months of transitional or short–term housing assistance to trafficked victims, including rent, utilities, and security deposits. The funding will also be used to help victims find employment and receive job training and counseling, stated the Justice Department.

“When the possibility of a housing grant came out, we took a hard look at it and found it would really fit us well,” says Medina.  “It would help us and all our partners and services within the community.” Although the grants will be awarded to organizations through a merit–based system, government officials say there are no limitations when it comes to who among the trafficked persons are eligible to receive housing assistance.

Major Amy A. Merchant, Women’s Ministries secretary with oversight of anti–human trafficking in the division, is excited about how this grant will add further support to the division’s “The LIGHT Project: Leading Individuals Gracefully Out of Human Trafficking,” which was unveiled last year as a program of comprehensive services for past and present victims of human trafficking across western Pennsylvania.

“The new housing assistance grant will cover all 28 counties in the division and will allow us to serve clients in local communities where we’ve already built partnerships and have support services. It will also give us the flexibility to work and to connect our clients to local Salvation Army resources,” says Merchant.


Addressing the COVID–19 challenge

Major Sandra J. Jackson, director of  Women’s Ministries for the Western Pennsylvania Division, says, despite the devastating impact of COVID–19 on the region, the needs of trafficked people remain constant and must continually be addressed. “Sarah’s involvement with her clients has not stopped during these five months. You don’t stop servicing clients when their needs don’t end,” says Jackson. “Sarah invests heavily with them.”

The need for social distancing and mandated communication restrictions prohibit in–person visitations. These obstacles have raised the stakes for clients who are already in critical situations. “The biggest thing is the possibility of losing contact with them,” says Medina.

“It’s so important, especially with people who have been through so much trauma. It’s all about building trust,” Medina says. “Not having face–to–face contact risks losing them as a client and perhaps causing them to go back into trafficking. So that’s the biggest risk; the loss of in–person contact and socialization.”

Staying in touch means making frequent phone calls and holding numerous video meetings with clients. A variety of platforms are employed to accomplish consistent contact. “One of our clients uses WhatsApp, another uses FaceTime, and another uses Zoom,” says Medina. For those who just need regular check–ins, those measures suffice.

However, when more serious matters arise, those methods fall short. Then Medina’s team must carefully but quickly go back to basics. “On some occasions, we’ve had clients in severe emotional crisis because of COVID–19. So, we’ve had to do some in­–person meetings,” she says. “But we were always in public areas with masks on and practicing safe distancing. We’ve kept those mandated procedures in place.”

“Because of COVID–19 and the crisis level these people are experiencing, my contact with them is almost daily,” Medina says. “I’m having three check–ins per week and each is longer than usual. So, it takes a lot of time and energy and commitment to help clients move forward during these crazy times we live in.”


Speaking the right language

For other clients, a language barrier has proven to be the greatest obstacle. Medina, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, must also converse with clients whose first language is Arabic or Czech. “We have a language interpretation service we use for phone calls. We haven’t used them for video yet, but we’ve made sure they are available to translate everything.”

Major Jackson recalls two particular clients with whom Medina has invested a great deal of her time. Says Jackson, “The first is an older Czechoslovakian man who has been labored–trafficked for decades. So, he comes out of a life that may have been somewhat comfortable, but nonetheless, difficult.”

Jackson continued, “Another client is a mom who was trafficked by a man who posed as her husband. She came to the United States with him believing she would become his wife. Sarah has heavily invested in this woman and her son. She is trying to keep them on a positive emotional thinking trajectory as they now settle into a new life in the United States, a country that is not their own.”


Housing the most vulnerable

When assisting victims in leaving such captivities, the immediate need for clean, safe, and affordable housing looms large. In a recent article by CBS News, a senior government official said, “Shelter is the number one most requested service for all crisis cases coming into the National Human Trafficking Hotline right now.”

Law enforcement, victims’ rights groups, and survivors agree that housing is the top priority that must be addressed. “We know that safe and stable housing for survivors of human trafficking is a crucial component to overall stability for individuals who are really aggressively trying to reclaim their lives,” wrote the official.

One of the outcomes Medina hopes her average of 10 clients per year will enjoy is permanent housing that will be ready for them by the time they leave the program. “They would be working with a case manager while they are in the housing program. They’ll be able to foster their own independence. I want all of them to graduate from the program and move into permanent housing.” The Army’s comprehensive coverage is available as long as a client needs help.


Sharing the light with others

The Salvation Army’s grant award is good news for many of the smaller agencies that have partnered with the Army in the fight against human trafficking. To them, the Army’s good name and comprehensive  resources are a godsend. “We’re hearing that The Salvation Army receiving this grant will be a plus for the Army as well as for other agencies that Sarah interacts with,” says Jackson. “She has successfully presented us and our history as a social justice organization. Trust has come slowly from the community, but it is coming. We are able to support some of the smaller agencies with our name and expertise and help them as they conduct vital services.”

Medina says, “We’re forming partnerships in Western Pennsylvania and we are meeting with people in different communities.” She is also working with a group called Justice at Work, which is helping  clients gain permanent visas.

Merchant says that, rather than use the Divisional Headquarters as the primary meeting place for clients, local corps and community organizations are being empowered to meet them where they live. “Clients who are local to a particular corps can get pastoral care and fellowship with the corps family. They can also form relationships with other churches in the community.”

“It is not easy to take such a grant and assign it to someone in the secular realm,” says Jackson. Fortunately, Medina has been the Army’s choice in her role as program director. Jackson remembers her first interaction with Sarah at the Harlem Temple Corps when she was a graduate student. Now in western Pennsylvania, she is helping the Army shine. “The key to every program is the person who leads it. God led Sarah here and we believe that fully. We know we’ll be moving forward.”

by Warren L. Maye