Milwaukee Activists Aim For 'Circle Of Support' Around Sex Trafficking Survivors

Apr 18, 2019

Near Washington Park on Milwaukee’s west side, Nancy Yarbrough runs the Humble Beginnings organization for women facing domestic violence, drug addiction or sex trafficking.

In homage to Jeffrey, a 17-year-old boy who lost his life to human trafficking, the organization gives away fleece blankets to victims and others who need help. Yarbrough says the blankets were hand-sewn and donated by a 15-year-old girl from Tomah.

“Jeffrey’s name is actually written inside of each blanket. And she gave these to us to make sure that the ladies that come in, have this blanket to wrap inside of Jeffrey’s love,” Yarbrough explains.

Nancy Yarbrough arranges fleece blankets that were hand-sewn and donated by a 15-year-old girl from Tomah.
Credit Maayan Silver

While Humble Beginnings isn’t a homeless shelter, she says there is space where women can spend a night or two, if needed. And they can access additional support — in areas such as transitional living, health care and legal services.

“Now that we have a place where they can come in off the streets and kind of rest for the night and get an opportunity to know what the next day might hold and have us help them, I think that’s our best approach,” Yarbrough explains.

But she never forgets that her team needs to meet people where they are. She says the strongest part of Humble Beginnings is its “feet on the street outreach.” That includes handing out purses full of toiletries — and a hand-written “letter of love” — according to Yarbrough.

Credit Maayan Silver

The effort not only provides people with products they need, but it also helps establish trust between Yarbrough’s staff and sex trafficking victims. And that trust, she says could result in victims seeking help to get off the streets.

Practical resources are a key component to getting those who are being trafficked out of the control of their traffickers, according to Claudine O’Leary. She runs two organizations — Represent and Rethink Resources — that work with Milwaukee teens who are in the sex trade.

O’Leary says teens tell her, “We, for sure, want help, but don’t just come to us and say, ‘Hey, you should stop doing that.’ OK, then what? Do you have a job? And at that job will they be able to take care of my kid?”

She says it’s important for organizations to help fulfill basic needs — including help getting a new job, having the proper clothing for that job, finding daycare, getting an ID.

Advocacy groups can also affect change by preventing people from being trafficked in the first place, she says. One of Represent’s strategies is helping kids learn to say no to people who solicit them. And part of that is helping them learn to recognize that some people are going to keep trying to contact them or get them alone.

"A connection to one single person who you can trust in your life dramatically reduces your risk of commercial sexual exploitation," says Claudine O'Leary.

“We sometimes do these role plays in which we’re practicing not only do you have to say no, but you also have to try to figure out how to pull yourself out of that situation,” she explains. O’Leary points out that the problem isn’t the teens themselves — it’s those trying to pay them for sex. 

She says she steers the teens forward by helping them find someone they can trust.

LISTEN: The Story Of A Milwaukee Sex Trafficking Survivor

“A connection to one single person who you can trust in your life dramatically reduces your risk of commercial sexual exploitation … like a mentor, or a family member, or somebody who’s close to you who you can rely on,” O’Leary says.

The goal is a wide circle of support, says Dana World Patterson. She is the chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, as well as the founder of a local anti-trafficking organization.

She says the task force is made up of many groups that coordinate services, provide education and awareness, and influence policy and legislation.

"So, we have coming to our meetings individuals that impact the LGBT community, the moms, the aunties, the grandmothers, survivors, the medical colleges, the universities, hospitals, law enforcement, FBI. It goes on and on because no one can eradicate sex trafficking by themselves. There isn’t one industry that can eradicate sex trafficking,” says World Patterson.

And the circle of support can include agencies that work on sexual abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and hunger.

While it’s important to get many agencies involved, World Patterson says the key is stopping trafficking one person at a time.

“We took on the mantra 'one less.' One less victim in Milwaukee is one less victim in the world,” she says.

Editor’s note: This is the third part in our series on sex trafficking.