By Amanda Waldroupe, staff Writer
Portland’s first and only drop in center for mothers involved in human trafficking, prostitution and other forms of sex work began on Saturday, May 15.
The drop-in center, called Our Mother’s House, is located in the basement of the Downtown Chapel, a Roman Catholic parish in downtown Portland. It offers a meal, hygiene items and access to resources and information for the women and their children.
More importantly, says founder Brian Willis, it offers a space for community and the chance for mothers involved in sex work to meet other women like them.
“They have a place where they can talk about the issues they are dealing with,” Willis says.
The large room is quiet and isolated from all of Downtown Chapel’s other services. Two large round tables surrounded by chairs occupy most of the space, and a sizable kitchen takes up one wall. Each Saturday night, Willis and a small group of volunteers arrive early to set up and prepare a meal. Before the center’s second Saturday, Willis strings Christmas lights over exposed piping. He wants to give the place a more friendly feel, he says.
Lena Walker, a volunteer and student at Portland State University, rips pieces of lettuce to make a salad as water boils in a kettle and coffee brews. Everything is laid out just as two women walk in and greet Willis and the volunteers. At that time, Willis escorted this reporter out of the center.
Willis thinks there were 12 to 15 women who came during the center’s first Saturday. He does not know whether or not they had histories in the sex worker industry, and is willing to have Our Mother’s House welcome any woman in the beginning so that women can spread the word to others.
“At the very beginning, reaching women who are in the situation with their kids can be difficult. It may take a while to just build relationships,” Willis says.
At the same time, he wants Our Mother’s House to maintain its focus of serving mothers and children. “We are trying to be very clear about this,” Willis says. He wants Our Mother’s House to be as low a barrier as possible.
“If you come through this door, you’re self identifying,” he says.
He thinks that it is possible that problems associated with stigma and discrimination would be created by having other women use the space.
Our Mother’s House is part of Willis’ organization, Global Health Promise, a non profit advocating for mothers involved in prostitution, human trafficking, and sex work. Willis started a similar center in 2007. It closed a year later because of a lack of funding and volunteers. That drop-in center was open to any woman involved in sex work. This time, he wanted the center to have a more narrow focus on mothers and their children, and try to address their major concerns.
Those include, Willis says, access to health care, especially prenatal and preventive care, housing, and mental health services. The majority of the women’s concerns does not have anything to do with themselves, but their children. “They talk about their kids all the time,” Willis says.
It is not known how many women are involved in sex work or how many have children accompanying them. But Willis says the number of women involved in human trafficking is “just the tip of the iceberg” when considering the number of women involved in other forms of sex work, such as prostitution.
Jeri Williams, a neighborhood program coordinator at the City of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, identifies as a survivor of human trafficking, which she experienced during the summer of 1989. During that time, her children were two and three years of age, and she says they were the main reason why she was able to escape the situation.
In many situations, she says, women are forced to give up their children. There is an assumption, she says, that women involved in sex work are unable to adequately care for their children. But she blames the stigma of being involved with sex work.
“It doesn’t mean you aren’t a good mother,” Williams says.
“One of the most common comments I get from mothers who are in prostitution is ‘no one has ever asked me about my children before,’” Willis says. That goes to show, he says, that many assumptions, stigma, and attitudes of disdain continue to exist for an extremely vulnerable population of women.
Children can be a powerful motivating force in the life of a mother involved in sex work, just like any other mother. “I think many, many times, women get out because of their children,” Williams says.
Williams thinks of Our Mother’s House as one piece in a large jigsaw puzzle that is needed to provide comprehensive services to victims of human trafficking and sex work. There are “very few” shelters, Williams says, to help women trying to escape sex work.
Awareness around the issues of human trafficking and sex work has increased recently as Oregon has developed a national reputation for being a hub for human and sex trafficking. The convergence of I-5 and I-84 makes Portland a key geographic area for traffickers. Oregon’s proximity to California and Mexico, as well as Southeast Asia, its high number of migrant workers, and a thriving prostitution industry has resulted in a level of activity related to human trafficking that politicians and advocates have described as alarming and concerning.
In January, the Oregon State Legislature passed HB 3623, which encourages the Oregon Liqour Control Commission to include material about human trafficking in the mailers it sends out to all liquor license renewals. The material includes basic information on human trafficking, as well as sticker displaying the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
County Commissioner Diane McKeel has made human trafficking one of her priorities, and her office is working to form a partnership with a non-profit to build a shelter for victims of domestic human trafficking. The Beaverton-based Transitions Global has wanted to build a 20-bed shelter for foreign victims of human trafficking, but slow fundraising has delayed the project.
Willis hopes that as Our Mother’s House continues, doctors, dentists, and other professionals will come to the center and meet with women and their children.
It’s important, he says, that there is “somewhere where there are people to listen to them, and hear their concerns.”
To report a human trafficking situation to federal or local law enforcement, or to obtain information about services for trafficked persons, call one of these numbers:
Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force Hotline: 503-251-2479
Catholic Charities Outreach and Support to Special Immigrant Populations: 503-542-2855 ext. 40
Sexual Assault Resource Center: 503-640-5311 (24-hour crisis line)