Human trafficking does happen in Southwest Louisiana, and one local group recently added a tool to its arsenal to combat it.
SWLA Abolitionists put up a billboard encouraging people to save victims of human trafficking by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline — 888-373-7888 — or by texting 233733. The billboard, which went up June 15, is near the Roanoake exit on Interstate 10.
“The Department of Justice actually calls Interstate 10 the ‘super highway for human trafficking.’ It’s essentially a coast-to-coast route for domestic traffickers,” said Rusty Havens, SWLA Abolitionist founder. “It’s also the closest east-west corridor from the United States-Mexico border — a common entry for international traffickers.”
He said human trafficking — controlling someone and using them for profit — is an issue from Houston to Lafayette.
“We have human trafficking and prostitution fronting as legitimate massage therapy businesses in this area,” Havens said. “And every single day, there are 25 to 50 new ads online selling women and children just in the Lake Charles area.”
The billboard, he said, will remain up for a year. Havens said the original plan was to put the billboard up around January for National Human Trafficking Awareness Month and leave it up for a couple of months. But then the organization, he said, got a “great deal.”
“We were able to get it for around $7,000 for the whole year,” Havens said. “They are usually around two to three times that amount.”
He said the billboard is expected to garner about 7 million views over the course of the year. But its impact, Havens said, won’t be measurable until the NHTH reports its year-end figures.
“While one of its purposes is to say that human trafficking does occur here,” he said, “we are also hoping that people who don’t live here will see it and think that if it can happen here, then it can happen in their small towns as well.”
According to the NHTH, 26,727 calls came in for 2016, with 7,572 total cases reported. Included in the total are figures for sex trafficking (5,551); labor trafficking (1,057); not specified (696); and sex and labor trafficking (268).
Among the top venues in 2016 for labor trafficking were domestic work (201); agriculture (124); traveling sales crews (100); restaurants/food service (75); and health and beauty services (45).
Top venues in 2016 for sex trafficking include those that are hotel/motel based (584); commercial-front brothels (559); online ad, venue unknown (409); residential brothels (361); and other venues (249).
Louisiana, according to the NHTH, had 104 reported human trafficking cases in 2016.
“Since we started around three years ago, our organization has helped seven survivors either get rescued or get restoration services,” Havens said. “We have also brought awareness to over 100,000 people.”
He encourages people to learn more about the issue by attending one of the group’s meetings — at 7 p.m. on the second Friday of each month at the Water’s Edge Gathering in Lake Charles.
Havens said the group also holds free seminars on human trafficking, online safety and laws. The next will be 12:45-4:45 p.m. July 22 at Central Library.