Joyce Cameron walked up to two young girls strolling through an East End neighborhood Saturday to share her cautionary life story.
“I was 11 1/2, 12 years old when I was taken from the state of Florida from my family by a pimp. I was strangled with an electrical cord,” she told them, explaining the start of her decades as a human- and sex-trafficking victim.
Now recovering and living free, Cameron, 45, was among dozens of volunteers who joined Harris County SheriffAdrian Garcia Saturday to spread out from Neighborhood Centers‘ Ripley House on Navigation, handing out literature on the signs of modern-day slavery and ways to report suspicious activity. The walk was part of an outreach series by the department in neighborhoods where trafficking is known to take place and an example of an increased law enforcement focus on combatting trafficking in Houston.
Last week, a group of local and national leaders – including Mayor Annise Parker, Gov. Rick Perry, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson and U.S. Rep. Ted Poe of Humble – launched a statewide campaign to call public attention to the trafficking of U.S. citizens and foreigners forced into labor and prostitution. In November, the city settled a lawsuit with a group of strip clubs in an arrangement that regulates them in exchange for police access to the facilities and funding for a Houston Police Department unit dedicated to trafficking.
Texas ranks second in the nation in total calls to the Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, leading law enforcement to identify 1,500 victims since December 2007. Nearly 300 cases have been brought to Harris County prosecutors since February 2013, officials said.
Houston is a known trafficking hub because of its size, closeness to the border and large immigrant population. Organized crime has expanded as sex trafficking has boomed with domestic gangs and gangs linked to Mexican drug cartels controlling much of the illegal trade, according to a recent Texas Department of Public Safety report.
It is difficult to known how many people in Houston live in slavery. Victims often are manipulated into believing their captor is leading them to a better life when they are, in fact, being trapped.
Most victims are invisible, working in plain sight in bars, nail salons, restaurants, massage parlors, and on the streets. Some labor with the promise from their captors it will pay off massive debts unknowingly incurred when smuggled into America. Others need cash for drug addictions, habits often initiated and sustained by pimps and traffickers as a means of control.
Signs of slavery
The crowd gathered in East Houston Saturday wanted to let victims know help is available and to encourage people to help police watch for the signs of slavery in their neighborhoods.
If people aren’t aware of the crime, they cannot do anything to fight it, said Julie Waters, founder and director of Free the Captives, a local nonprofit that works with teenage trafficking victims.
“These are girls born right here in these neighborhoods,” she said. “They start out between the ages of 12 and 14 years old in sex trafficking. You know, the sheriff’s office rescued one 16-year-old who in four days said she had to sleep with 21 men. What does that do to the psyche of a 16-year-old girl?”
Garcia sent a message to trafficking criminals: “We don’t tolerate human trafficking or the enslaving of children in our community,” he said to cheers. “We will put you in jail if you are making money off of these lives.”
Jennifer Owen, 37, curled informational pamphlets into chain-link fences and slipped them into mailbox slots. She smiled and laughed frequently, chatting with other volunteers about the midday heat and her former life on the street. Owen pointed toward Navigation Boulevard and said many trafficked prostitutes used to walk it, waiting for clients.
“I worked all these tracks,” she said, the sun glinting off jewels decorating her pink baseball cap.
Owen, 37, moved to Houston when she was 4 years old. Her mother, an escort, later married her pimp. Cameron said their now-normal relationship is a rare exception. She herself had fought to keep away from her mother’s lifestyle, but said drug use and personal insecurities made her a prime target for manipulative, predatory pimps.
Pimps often target girls with low self-esteem who appreciate having someone seemingly care about their lives, mentor them and protect them. Drug use reinforces the cycle, pimps often controlling access to a fix, cash and daily needs. Victims, whether forced into the sex trade or other kinds of work, are isolated, trained and threatened to trust no one but their trafficker, Owen said.
“You are not allowed to have friends. You can only talk to people and think of them as a potential client,” she said. “You are brainwashed.”
She faced more than a dozen charges for prostitution and drug use before, she said, the nonprofit We’ve Been There Done That rehabilitation program helped her break free.
“Everything about that life is false,” she said.
Owen beamed as she described her new life.
She brags about her precocious 6-year-old son – a budding musician and eager member of a school chess club – and the veteran to whom she is engaged, who has helped her heal.
Officials encouraged victims and anyone who sees suspicious activity to call the trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.