Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, announces plans for creating a safe house for young victims of sex trafficking; behind him, from left, are Alameda County District attorney Nancy O'Malley; Chuck Fernandez, CEO of Catholic Charities of the East Bay; Caitlin Meyer, aide to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Oakland Police Lt. Kevin Wiley; and Deputy Chief David Downing.
MICHELE JURICH/THE CATHOLIC VOICE
A safe house for victims of human trafficking
Within a year, a partnership between the Diocese of Oakland, Catholic Charities of the East Bay and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office will open the doors of the first of what, leaders hope, will become a series of safe houses for young victims of sex trafficking.
Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, made the announcement at a Dec. 8 press conference, just hours after Pope Francis opened the Holy Door at the Vatican to begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
"We've been called by Pope Francis to celebrate this holy year in two ways: We're asked to contemplate the mercy God has shown to all of us then go forth to offer this mercy to those in need," Bishop Barber said.
While the project to provide a home for 20 young female victims of sex trafficking will be among the signature events for the diocese during this year of mercy, the church's interest in it dates back almost two years.
"In February 2014, I met with District Attorney Nancy O'Malley in the San Antonio District of Oakland," the bishop said. "She explained to me the enormity of the epidemic of commercial sexual exploitation of children, especially in the Bay Area, and asked how the Catholic Church could be part of the solution."
She was not the only one to bring the matter to his attention." Many of my pastors in parishes we have in those districts came to me asking, 'Bishop, girls are knocking on the door, asking for help. What can we do to help them?"
The help will come through a safe house, under the care of Catholic Charities of the East Bay." I think it's imperative that the church take the lead in building an awareness of this and offer victims a safe place to rediscover their dignity and self-worth."
The location of the safe house, for security reasons, cannot be disclosed, but a site is under consideration. Chuck Fernandez, CEO of Catholic Charities, estimated the operating cost for the house for a year at $750,000. It would be funded, he said, through donations, grants from foundations and local, state and federal agencies.
Catholic Charities will seek training through Georgia-based Wellspring Living, which operates a series of safe houses for victims of sex trafficking.
"Children don't just need a bed," said O'Malley. "They had a bed. What they need is a home, a loving place, an environment where they can thrive and grow and get educated and feel the love we all have for them."
That environment, Fernandez said, would include "mental health counseling, medical and dental care, education and basic life and social skills.
Housing for 20 is just a beginning, they said.
"On any given night in Oakland, and up the 80 corridor, there can be as many as 100 young women out on the street at night," O'Malley said. The district attorney said her office, over the last three years, has "worked with over 550 young women through our Safety Net program."
With greater outreach to the young victims — and with a safe house to offer them — O'Malley said, "I fully expect we are going to see more and more young women coming forward to get out of the life."
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