“No place to go”

After years of child abuse and incest, at just 11 years old, Nathan Earl developed an addiction to drugs. It was his only means of escape. “That lifestyle followed me through my early 20s. I was strung out on crack, heroin, and crystal meth. I was homeless, raped, and my body was left on the streets,” he recalled. “I had no place to go.”

Courtesy of Nathan Earl
Courtesy of Nathan Earl

Homeless and enslaved by an all-consuming addiction, Earl fell into the clutches of a drug dealer. “I could barely string a sentence together, and then I came across a drug dealer who began exploiting me,” he said. “And when I wouldn’t perform [sexual acts] for him or his friends, he would kick me out onto the streets.” Earl was victim of commercial sex exploitation.

Human trafficking is a a $235 million industry in the Greater Miami area, according to a 2007 report by the Urban Institute. And Florida is the nation’s third highest in sex trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Sex trafficking occurs across all ages and genders throughout Miami, supported by numerous venues that include brothels, erotic massage parlors, strip clubs, and via escort services.

In the case of youth trafficking, pimps seek out vulnerable populations, both online and via the internet. “The gravest vulnerability is homelessness. There is no shelter, so these homeless kids start looking for a place to stay — for food and shelter. When they run away, traffickers prey on that,” Earl said.

The face of youth trafficking

Victims are often female, most ranging from the ages of 12 to 18, according to Judge Mari Sampedro-Iglesia of the Juvenile Division in the Unified Family Court/Complex Litigation Division at Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse. “The cases I am involved with mainly would be children, mostly girls, who are runaways or in the foster care system that are obviously looking for love, affection, and acceptance,” she said.

Judge Sampedro-Iglesia currently has 95 active human trafficking cases and 51 suspected cases. As a judge in the 11th circuit, she sees cases from all over the county, with most stemming from “North Dade and very South Dade, with some in the Okeechobee area and Hialeah,” she said.

One reason trafficking is likely higher in these areas is “because there are high concentrations of lower income people and runaways,” she explained. “These are not the most affluent areas.”

(Courtesy of Imagens Evangélicas/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Courtesy of Imagens Evangélicas/Flickr Creative Commons)

And the number of reported cases is continuing to rise all over the county, partly because community members have become more aware of the issue and are reporting it more often.  Yet identifying a victim of sex trafficking and subsequently prosecuting a trafficker is still a formidable task, according to Sandy Skelaney, the chief mastermind of Ignition Fund, an accelerator program for innovative and tech-based human rights and anti-trafficking startups. She is also an adjunct professor at FIU teaching Sex Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery in the Women and Gender Studies Department. Skelaney has a long history of working with victims of human trafficking all over the world, from Thailand to New York City.

The problem with the solution

“Grown ups don’t know how to help these kids. … It’s hard for these youths I’m working with to trust anyone to begin with,” she explained. “You can’t expect them to trust you right away, you have to give them respect, and dignity, and it’s hard to train people in this.”

As a teenager, Skelaney lived on the streets for part of her life and ended up trapped in the world of drug abuse and homelessness, with many of her close friends dying of drug overdoses and AIDS. Now, as an advocate and activist, these experiences help her to better identify and connect with survivors of sex trafficking.

“Because I’d already lived through so much, it wasn’t hard for me to get what it took to get those girls out of the situation they are in. … We really connect because they can relate to some of the experiences I’ve been through,” she said. “This is not something everyone can do. It’s hard work and it’s very dark work. You’re diving into these depths of humanity.”

Although Florida’s laws aimed at curbing the problem of sex trafficking were revised in 2012 and again in 2013, sex workers are still being prosecuted at disproportionately higher rates than traffickers, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Part of the problem, especially in the case of minors, is obtaining testimony from the victims sufficient enough for prosecution, according to Judge Sampedro-Iglesia.

A primary reason is that government employees may not have the sensitivity training necessary to interface with victims, Skelaney noted, adding, “The system wants a miracle. We’re telling a victim, ‘We pulled you off the street and now we want to inundate you with programs and strangers are going to ask you all of these invasive questions.’”

“A lot of people have good intentions and good hearts but they’re not being mindful about forming relationships with survivors and that’s what’s really going to transform lives. I’m really trying to build that into our system,” she added.

Shattering stereotypes

Skelaney laments the image of human trafficking being depicted in mass media. “Mass media often over sensationalizes the issue, creating ridiculous stereotypes of what a victim looks like,” she said. “These girls, they know how to hustle. Most people who walk by these girls on the street would be afraid of her.”

According to Earl, once a victim himself, government and other non-profit interventions don’t always provide the resources needed for marginalized victims, especially gay and trans youth, groups which are often overlooked when considering the consequences of sex trafficking. To address this, Earl founded Ark of Freedom, a program that works with The Miami Foundation to identify male youth sex trafficking victims and those at risk.

For Earl, launching this organization helps him “assign meaning to some of the more twisted stuff [he] went through as a kid. … It helps process some of that damage.”

He’s working hard to provide resources for LGBT sex trafficking victims in Miami-Dade, a side of the issue that’s too often ignored. On November 20, Ark of Freedom is organizing a Night on the Streets, with prominent community members volunteering to spend a night sleeping in an alleyway in Wynwood, raising money to fight homelessness and human trafficking in Miami-Dade County.

To report suspected human trafficking, call the State Attorney’s human trafficking hotline at 305-350-5567.