WACO, Texas — Unbound, a nonprofit in Waco that fights sex trafficking, is raising money to create the first shelter in Central Texas for trafficked youth.
The short-term placement home would be equipped to provide housing and 24/7 trauma-based care to six underage girls at a time.
According to Jessica Sykora, the Director of Development at Unbound Global, the organization has been considering the idea for years.
Like many advocacy centers, finding safe interim housing for survivors is one of Unbound’s biggest hurdles.
“So while there are facilities available, there are foster homes and youth shelters, the reality is that there’s not enough available for all the kids that need a safe place to be,” said Sykora.
Not Enough Beds, Not The Right Training
According to a Children Displacement Report by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), the shortage has become worse since the pandemic.
In February 2020 DFPS listed 34 kids as “Children Without Placement” or CWP. By August 2021 that number had jumped to 395.
“So there are kids currently sleeping on case workers' office floors because they don’t have a place to be,” said Sykora.
But even more difficult than finding housing is finding a facility that provides caretakers with the right type of training.
Sykora explains sexual exploitation can create a Trauma Bond with the perpetrator, similar to Stockholm Syndrome.
If staff isn’t trained in how to provide the appropriate care, it becomes more likely that a victim will run away and return to the trafficker.
Kim Clark has seen this firsthand while working as a Special Investigator at DFPS, covering trafficking in 15 counties in Central Texas.
Her unit is also assigned to children who run away from state care. She says a small, traffic-informed shelter will help survivors get the personalized care they need, which can help break the cycle of running away.
“In our local community we don’t have a shelter that specifically addresses trafficking survivors,” said Clark. “Youth who have been sexually exploited have different needs. Not everyone understands that.”
Dr. Kerry Burkley, the Assistant Director of the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children, has noticed the same trend.
“For many of them they don’t trust many people they’ve been through quite a bit of trauma,” said Dr. Burkley. “What’s missing is a sense of belonging.”
A Sense of Belonging
A sense of belonging is exactly what Sykora and the team at Unbound hope to create.
While giving a tour of the home, which is now stripped to the studs in the renovation process, she explains how the design was created to give girls a sense of home and autonomy.
There will be a game room where girls can gather to do homework and eat together, each girl has her own half of a closet to store belongings, and rooms will house two people at a time.
“For some of our survivors this will be the first home environment they’ve ever really lived in so we want them to really feel welcomed and safe here,” said Sykora.
Unbound has been wanting to open a shelter for years, but the idea of buying a home and hiring 24/7 caretakers had felt too ambitious.
That is until they got a call from a local builder who said that he had a home that he could renovate, for free.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, wait, they’re just going to give us a house? It’s amazing,” said Sykora.
The home will comfortably fit six girls and their caretakers. It will include three rooms, an office, a community room and a newly designed backyard.
What They Still Need
Unbound hopes to fundraise, hire staff and open the home by Summer 2022.
They say the donor who gifted the house and renovation has covered about half the budget, but they’re still trying to raise $465,000 for furnishings, bedding, appliances, and trained staff to provide 24/7 care.
Once the home is up and running they say most of their operating budget will be reimbursed by the state.
“So while the upfront costs are large, the sustainability is built-in through that state reimbursement,” said Sykora. “So that makes this a great investment for the community.”
If you would like to donate to help the shelter become a reality you can give a single or monthly gift online.