Houston is often touted by business and community leaders for its economy, proximity to the port and international trade, but these attributes are also connected to something else—human trafficking. The I-10 corridor, which runs through Houston, is designated as the No. 1 route for human trafficking in the country by the U.S. Department of Justice, and it is estimated that 25 percent of victims in the U.S. are trafficked through Texas.
"When people say the hub for human trafficking is Houston, it's really the Greater Houston area," said Robert Sanborn, executive director for Children at Risk. "You're going to see a lot of sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas of the county, because it becomes easier for traffickers to operate there."
Human trafficking is considered a form of modern-day slavery through which individuals are forced to provide services or labor through the use of force, fraud or coercion, said Edwin Chapuseaux, investigator with the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
"Human trafficking is an offense against a person and a violation of civil rights," he said. "With a trafficker, the person doesn't let go of individuals. He wants them to make money for him and will hold onto that person as long as he can."
During a Houston-area human trafficking summit hosted by U.S. Rep. Pete Olson in late July, advocates and law enforcement officials gathered to discuss the issue and what can be done to stop the practice.
"Law enforcement officials on all levels are working with state agencies to address this problem," Olson said. "[In Congress] we have the authority to pass laws to make it easier to put the evildoers in jail and make sure victims are put on a path to recovery."
Houston is considered a hub for trafficking due in part to the interstate highway systems that run through the area, namely I-10, which connects California and Florida.
"We also have [Bush Intercontinental Airport] on the north side of town and Hobby Airport in the south, so there are a lot of opportunities for traffickers to move seamlessly in and out of the city," said Misa Nguyen, deputy director for Houston-based nonprofit United Against Human Trafficking.
Houston and unincorporated Harris County's lack of zoning laws may also make the area more attractive to traffickers, Nguyen said.
"You can sometimes have a massage parlor next to a daycare, so in that regard, traffickers can have a number of different businesses that are fronts for human trafficking," she said. "Traffickers are crafty. The suburbs could also be attractive to [traffickers] because they might think people aren't aware of the issue there, and they can conduct their business unnoticed."
YMCA International has served domestic and international victims of human trafficking for 11 years, providing them with access to food, counseling, medical care, transportation and other necessary social services, said Constance Rossiter, trafficked persons program director for YMCA International in Houston.
Victims—who can be of any gender, age or race—are typically from vulnerable populations who may have experienced abuse and violence or are looking for a better life in the U.S., Rossiter said.
"[Victims] believe they are coming to work at an honorable job, and once they get here they are forced to work in a cantina or brothel," she said. "The traffickers will threaten to call immigration, or tell them they know where they live, or they'll take their documents so the person feels helpless under their control."
Although many of the victims YMCA International works with are from Central America or other countries around the world, there are more domestic human trafficking victims, Rossiter said.
"I think when most people hear about trafficking they think it's an international problem," Sanborn said. "Indeed, there are about 15,000 victims who come across our borders every year for trafficking. But there are 200,000 domestic girls involved with trafficking as well. It changes the dynamic immediately when you see the problem is much more domestic."
A growing number of organizations that serve Cy-Fair and the Greater Houston area are making an effort to combat human trafficking by raising awareness and offering various services to help victims.
For the last nine years, Cy-Fair based nonprofit Shield Bearer has provided counseling services to those in need, but three years ago the organization was asked by a sister agency to start seeing clients affected by human trafficking, executive director Roy Wooten said.
"The first thing we did was contact other people in the field who served this particular group, and we brought in some specialists to do some training with our team members," he said. "Since then we have served more than 100 women and girls."
Shield Bearer works with several sister agencies in the Greater Houston area to help victims of human trafficking, including Redeemed Ministries, which has a residential program for women and girls who have been trafficked.
United Against Human Trafficking, which was formed in 2005, works to end trafficking through education, outreach and prevention. The organization hosts various training programs, does community presentations and is organizing Houston's Human Trafficking Awareness Month in September.
"We've also been on the forefront of prevention work related to human trafficking," Nguyen said. "A lot of people are just starting to learn about the issue, but aren't focusing on how our youth could become victims. We created prevention programs for boys and girls that feature elements of labor trafficking and holistic views of trafficking to help them recognize what it is."
In another effort to raise awareness about human trafficking, Tomball resident Jason Arcemont plans to break a world record by running 850 miles across Texas in October from El Paso to Orange as part of his event, Texas Freedom Run.
"A couple years ago, an organization called Love146 came out to our church and educated us about these horrible [human trafficking] statistics," Arcemont said. "I felt compelled to do something, and it hit me that I should combine my passion for this issue and my endurance to put on this event and see what attention we can raise."
Arcemont plans to run 30 miles a day for 30 days and stop along the way at various churches and schools to raise awareness and collect donations for Love146. So far, Arcemont has raised about $30,000. Donations can be made online at www.texasfreedomrun.com.
In addition to researching the issue, residents can also help stop human trafficking in their community by talking to their fellow neighbors, Nguyen said.
"You would never know if that donut shop employee you see all the time is a victim of human trafficking who is forced to work 16 hours on end without pay and is abused physically or emotionally if you don't start that conversation," she said.
In Texas, more than a dozen bills related to human trafficking passed in the 2013 legislative session, creating tougher criminal and civil consequences for traffickers and measures to better protect the victims.
"There weren't many laws written in the past that allowed prosecutors and law enforcement to go after traffickers," Sanborn said. "When trafficking was defined, by very name, it sounded like transportation was involved, but it's not about that at all. It's about forced labor, and that's why passing legislation becomes so important."
Signed into law in 2013, House Bill 2725 mandated the Texas Education Agency and state departments of Family and Protective Services and Health and Human Services come up with curriculum to teach educators and welfare workers about trafficking, since victims often interact with those providers.
"The idea is that we have more first responders trained to identify trafficking victims," Sanborn said.
Additionally, Senate Bill 92 from the 2013 legislative session dealt with diversionary court programs, allowing minors who get in trouble with the law for prostitution related to trafficking to get their record dropped and get the social services they need.
"There are still a lot of areas of the law that need to be focused on in regard to trafficking, including treatment for victims and ending demand," Sanborn said. "We wouldn't have this problem if there weren't men buying young girls and women who have been trafficked. In a sense, [trafficking] starts with demand, and as a community we will have to change our habits."