Charlotte Home Teaches Former Sex Trafficking Victims To Market Their Minds
Human trafficking has been a hot topic in Charlotte recently, but it's certainly not a new phenomenon. Just ask U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins:
"We've had human trafficking in the city of Charlotte for decades. What we haven't done is recognized it. What we haven't done is mobilized to do something about it."
There are now a handful of local groups doing something about it. One group, Market Your Mind Not Your Body, is trying to fight human trafficking with a group home in east Charlotte. The group focuses on helping sex workers leave their pimps.
On Thursday nights, girls between the ages of 15 and 21 punch in a security code before they shuffle into a low-slung, one-story home in east Charlotte. It's personal development night and mentors are leading a discussion on trust and respecting boundaries. Sometimes, doors get slammed … and it gets a little loud.
"When it came to befriending females, I was like, man – I don't know you, I don't know what you're about, I don't really trust you," says 19-year-old Tiara Austin. "So that was hard for me and then I had to break down walls and try to trust people."
When Tiara was 15, she went to Columbia, South Carolina with a friend and her friend's boyfriend. They were supposed to be going to his house. But instead, he took them to a run-down hotel – and wouldn't let them leave.
"He wrote down a list of rules. Like 'You're going to have to call me daddy'," Austin says. "And that's when I told her, I was like – I think he's a pimp. I was like, 'I've never seen one in real life, but I've seen it on TV', and she thought it was a joke. But then he started talking about like clients and stuff like that."
She was told when to sleep, when to eat and was forced to have sex with anyone who came in. If she made any money – only $50 to $100 a day – she had to turn it over.
"It felt like being in a hole when you're in prison," Austin says. "You don't got nobody to really talk to you. You may eat today or you may not eat today. And you can't sleep and you feel like the walls are caving in on you and you just feel like you're going to lose your mind. So that's why I feel like a lot of people, they go to drugs."
You feel like the walls are caving in on you ... like you're going to lose your mind - Tiara Austin
There were always drugs around: marijuana, ecstasy, alcohol. It wasn't long before she was hooked. But a month later, she was able to escape and made it back to Charlotte.
Her mother then brought her to Antonia Childs. Everyone calls her Ms. Neet.
"You'll find in the movement, it's more victimization than accountability," Neet says. "And they can't be with you for the rest of your lives, so you try to give them responsibilities and make them accountable for their actions."
Neet started the Market Your Mind group four years ago. She opened the home last year. The house provides transitional and emergency housing for girls trying to leave the sex industry. There are currently three girls who live in the house, but the program works with more than 30 girls in the Charlotte area.
Neet likes to keep them busy. Tiara is working on getting her GED.
"Right now, I'm trying to focus on school," Austin says. "I don't want to be distracted or anything. Because I have a feeling like … me being here, it's actually like … everything is set."
Market Your Mind Not Your Body
At the house, there are classes and program the girls are required to attend. And there are always chores – like drying the dishes and sweeping the floors -- that need to get done before 10 p.m. every at night. They're also required to fill out accountability worksheets detailing what they did that day.
The goal is to teach the teens and young women basic life skills they'll need once they move out after six months to a year. They even get small allowances of $25 to $50 to help them learn how to manage their money.
But one of the biggest challenges is keeping the girls from relapsing. Tiara, for example, went back to her her pimp, less than a year later.
"I felt like I didn't have any self-worth. I felt like everything had been taken from me," Austin says. "And I felt like everybody knew. Like it felt like a big secret to me, what I had been through. But it felt like everybody knew and everybody was just judging me. I felt like that's all I was good for. Like he said, 'Nobody's going to want you after this.' And I was like, well, maybe you're right."
Antonia Childs understands. She was in and out of the life for six years, beginning when she was 16.
That's when she started dating a 38-year-old man who eventually became her pimp.
It was hard for Neet to leave the money. She used to earn $800 an hour. But at the age of 22, she decided to quit. She lost her car and her home. She opened a bakery called Neet's Sweets that she ran out of her apartment.
It's now a catering business and the profits are used to fund the house and staff. Some of the girls also work part-time at the bakery.
Market Your Mind is one of four safehouses in Charlotte – mostly faith-based – for girls who want to leave the sex industry.
Neet believes the problem is only getting worse and there's heavy recruitment in certain impoverished neighborhoods.
"We've had different things in our community that we don't really want to address sometimes – poverty, homelessness, a lot of different things going on," Neet says. "And because of things, it's why we have human trafficking here. It's a buildup and it's just exploding now."
But it's hard to know exactly how pervasive the problem really is in Charlotte, says Catherine Godwin.
She's with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
"There's just not a lot of data out there about where trafficking is happening and what's going on - on the ground - and getting a good picture," Godwin says. "So it's something we're all really struggling with."
N.C. In The Top Ten States?
In 2012, the organization's hotline received more than 230 calls from North Carolina about potential cases of human trafficking. That number put North Carolina in the top 10 states. And that number has received a lot of attention.
But CMPD has yet to see evidence of an epidemic.
CMPD started a human trafficking task force in the summer of 2013. So far, the task force has investigated about 30 cases.
"We haven't seen it being documented so far in our cases as being as large of a problem as we had kind of been led to believe," says CMPD Captain Michelle Hummel.
An Online Shift
That may be because more of the business is moving online.
This summer, a man in Charlotte was convicted of running a prostitution ring that involved at least a dozen girls between the ages of 16 and 25. They were sold through the website Backpage.com.
Neet says she sees herself in each girl and all of them – including her – are a work in progress.
"And as we empower other young women to become leaders and ultimately survivor leaders, you'll see a decrease in young women falling victim to this life," Neet says.