Nearly 1,000 people are trafficked through Michigan each year. Image via Shutterstock
Nearly 1,000 people are trafficked through Michigan each year.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month. One local woman shares her story of survival and the support she received from a Detroit-based organization.

DETROIT—Michigan is ranked #2 in the nation for sex trafficking, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ). 

More than 900 people in Michigan alone contacted the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2019, searching for help and resources. More than 1,000 calls were received from the state in each of the preceding two years.

Monday is an official day of awareness as part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in January.  Although the DOJ declared the awareness month in 2018, Alternatives For Girls has been working to protect these at-risk groups for more than 30 years.

One of the girls who found help and support from the Michigan nonprofit is Mariyha Farris.

“I think I was 16 or 17 [when I first encountered Alternatives For Girls],” Farris told The ‘Gander. “I was a street worker and one of the outreach vans stopped to talk to me and my friend when we were walking down the street.”

It was a winter night in Michigan, and Farris remembers being cold and without much to her name.

“I didn’t have a coat, I didn’t have gloves, I didn’t eat that day,” said Farris.

“They gave me gloves, a scarf, two lunch sacks, and a condom pack,” she said.

Alternatives For Girls distributes contraceptive packs along with hygiene and survival kits to people on the streets of southeastern Michigan, twice a week. 

“We’re meeting street workers where they are, so consistency is important to gain credibility in the community,” Sandra Ramocan, director of outreach and education services for the nonprofit, told The ‘Gander.

Later that winter night, Farris was in the small motel room she rented, going through the kit. Buried in the condom pack was a small piece of paper with Alternatives For Girls’ address, phone number, and a message that let her know that she would always be welcome to their free shower, warm clothing, and other resources.

In an effort to build trust with women and girls living on and working the streets, the Alternatives For Girls team is adamant about consistently being in the community spaces these women frequent. 

But even then, some women consider it a gamble to accept additional help.

“I didn’t [trust them],” Farris replied when asked how she knew she would be safe with the staff of the Detroit-based nonprofit. She visited the building one day after receiving her first survival kit. 

“When I first came there I did not feel like I could trust them,” she said. “But when I walked in, it was calm. And with what I was doing and the way I was living my life, I didn’t have calm—I had chaos.”

The bright colors and warm atmosphere of the Alternatives For Girls building reflected Farris’ idea of what loving, safe homes would look like. 

“I wanted a home. I missed home.”

She said it took several more visits to the space over the coming months, and genuine interactions with staff, before she decided to enroll in its Alternatives For Girls’ New Choices program. The educational program combines mental health and addition recovery services, educational and job skills training, and other resources to women and girls looking to transition out of the sex industry.

Lateshia Parker, marketing and communications manager for the nonprofit, told The ‘Gander that stories like Farris’ make her “livid.”

Farris told The ‘Gander that after she experienced sexual abuse and trauma as a child, she was picked up at 12 years old and held in confinement for three years, and forced into commercial sexual exploitation. She said she was able to escape after an altercation on the top floor of the house where she was held distracted the person manning the door. 

Farris said she only remembers “running, running, and running.”

She said she worked with the FBI on an investigation into her abductor in 2017. The FBI did not respond to The ‘Gander’s request for comment by publication.

“[It’s] modern-day slavery,” Parker said. “We have to bring more awareness to this terrible issue.”

The 22-year-old has since beat all the odds stacked against her. “I made it,” said Farris, who eventually graduated with her high school diploma and built her own businesses.

If you are or if anyone you know is involved in sex trafficking, call the national Human Trifficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. 

The Alternatives For Girls hotline is 888-AFG-3319.

READ: Keep Going Michigan: How to Help Survivors of Violence and Abuse

Expanding Its Services

Thanks to a $500,000 federal grant, Alternatives For Girls will be expanding its services to offer transitional housing and more long-term resources for the women and girls they help. 

“With the grant, we can pay for their housing for the next two years,” Ramocan said.

In its past, Alternatives For Girls coordinated with local shelters to find available beds for people who are transitioning out of sex work. But beds can be scarce in Michigan.

“[Shelters] have guaranteed spaces for survivors of domestic violence,” Ramocan told The ‘Gander. “But victims of sex trafficking don’t have the same protections.”

The grant was a longshot for the nonprofit that had never offered such services before, but the DOJ saw a need for the services in the Michigan community.

“Human trafficking is a barbaric criminal enterprise that subjects its victims to unspeakable cruelty and deprives them of the most basic of human needs, none more essential than a safe place to live,” said then-US Attorney General Barr, who awarded the grant to Alternatives For Girls, said in a written statement before the recipients were chosen.

The organization launched a week-long digital billboard awareness campaign throughout southeastern Michigan on Monday. Michiganders driving along stretches of I-94, I-275, I-75, and M-59 will be reminded to be aware of these atrocities occurring in Michigan each day.

Ramocan encourages Michiganders who suspect a woman or girl is subject to trafficking abuse to contact either the hotline or local police, even if they have no proof of a crime.

“Just call,” she urged. “Even if you only suspect [there’s a safety issue] and you’re not sure,” she continued, “You can save a life by just calling.” 

Not reporting your suspicions could end one.

Farris says the only hope she held onto during her captivity was the hope to not die. She says her advice to Michigan girls is to listen to themselves and to trust their instincts.

“Never let somebody tell you who you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to do in life, to the extent of changing who you feel like you are.”

COMING UP: Betsy DeVos Asked Congress to Defend Her Legacy. Michiganders Want It Reversed.