AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hidden in plain sight on a busy Austin street sits a nondescript building, offering a new place of support for young people who’ve experienced intensely traumatic situations.

The center is a resource for Austin youth ages 12 to 22 who have been commercially and sexually exploited.

This drop-in center is operated by SAFE Alliance, which offers resources, legal assistance, counseling, and a host of other services to help people in the Austin area who have experienced violence and abuse. At the center, youth can get a meal, receive therapy, search for jobs, attend peer group meetings, get case management, or simply hang out. 

A room inside the SAFE Ascension drop-in center for youth survivors of sex trafficking. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

The building was donated by Ascension Seton. In November 2018, Seton Healthcare Family announced several partnerships, one of which was with SAFE Alliance to address the growing number of people experiencing human trafficking in Central Texas. 

The center has been open since April 2019, though its location is kept secret to protect the privacy of SAFE Alliance clients who are the victims of abuse, assault, and violence.

“We see everything from prevention to real, real serious clear concerns of trafficking,” explained Allison Franklin, the Director of SAFE’s CARES program which oversees the center and the programs carried out there.

Franklin knows firsthand how valuable a welcoming space and readily accessible resources can be for survivors. She is a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation and said that the kind of services offered at this drop-in center are services she didn’t have access to while she was being exploited.

“The unfortunate reality of it is, oftentimes you know individuals such as myself are viewed as offenders and criminals. I was actually criminalized for my own victimization, for the most part. Not to say I didn’t get services,” Franklin explained.

In an email, she described that being sexually exploited also left her with an added burden of a criminal record.

A sign-in point at the SAFE Ascension drop-in center for youth survivors of sex trafficking. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“Worse yet, I had acquired multiple felonies while under the oppression of my trafficker,” Franklin said. “Making it extremely difficult to obtain employment, housing, and financial aid; there were also numerous other barriers that limited my economic agency. “

Franklin explained that she was a runaway at age 11 or 12 and was picked up by her first predator immediately. She added that she was sexually trafficked by a third party in her early 20’s.

At an interview inside this drop-in space, she explained why she sees it as valuable.

“That’s the beauty of this program. Because most individuals cycle in and out of victimization and services, so when they don’t get their needs met in those services, they generally go back to what they know, or what they have to do.”

“So we are able to provide that safe space to hopefully get them on the other side of that,” she said, looking at the tranquil colors on the walls of the therapy room. 

She added the inviting feel of the center is very intentional. Franklin explained, for example, that because of her time being incarcerated, she gets triggered by strong overhead lighting. So the space where CARES works with survivors now is designed to avoid triggers like that.

“The colors are calm, the chairs are comfortable,” Franklin said of the center. “Oftentimes in jail it’s just that hard bed or that hard chair, there’s definitely no blankets, those types of things.”

The therapy room at the SAFE Ascension drop-in center for youth survivors of sex trafficking. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Looking at the therapy room around her, Franklin said, “feels like home, right? doesn’t feel like you’re about to lock me up.”

One thing Franklin wished she had as a young adult is the kind of choice-based options available at the center.

She explained that certain services were mandated for her, recalling that people told her, “‘ you are going to get sexual abuse counseling, you are going to do this, and I wasn’t ready for it.”

“Not only was I not ready for it, but there was no connection within those services, so you could throw services at me all day, but if there’s not a healthy and safe connection and you’re just doing your job, I’m not going to pick up those tools, right?” she continued.

“So we offer a choice,” she said of the drop-in center. “They get to choose what they want.”

Originally, SAFE had a drop-in center that they shared with another local nonprofit, LifeWorks, for short periods during the week.

Franklin said this new space has been very popular among youth who seek SAFE’s services.

Christann Vasquez, the Chief Operating Operator for Ascension Texas, explained that Ascension Texas’ goal of donating this space was “to ensure that people who were human trafficked had a place where they could step off the streets, come in, have a warm environment, be supported, maybe wash clothes, but really [have] a safe environment off of the street.”

Vasquez explained that as a health care provider, Ascension Texas felt they could uniquely make an impact on addressing trafficking in central Texas.

“One of the studies that, actually at the highest level of Ascension nationally, the Daughters of Charity were doing some work and one of the studies indicated that 88% of survivors of human trafficking ended up touching a health care system in some manner, yet they were not identified as a survivors of human trafficking,” Vasquez explained. “When that happened, we as an organization called on our hearts and our mission of ‘What are we gonna do about it?”

Vasquez explained that SAFE approached Ascension Texas with what they saw as a gap in resources for survivors in the Austin area. That conversation is what led to what is now the drop-in center.

The partnership between Ascension Texas and SAFE was established in 2019 as a two-year agreement. Ascension Texas explained that they and SAFE will decide at the end of the two years what the next steps will be for the center.

The numbers at the center

The drop-in center has been very popular among SAFE’s clients.

In all of 2019, SAFE CARES served 248 youth and minors who were survivors of sex trafficking or exploitation.

During the six months between April 1, 2019, and September 30, 2019, SAFE CARES served 159 youth and minors who were survivors of sex trafficking or exploitation. Over that same period of time, 113 survivors went to the drop-in center.

A uniquely tailored space

SAFE described this drop-in center is a “trauma-informed space,” meaning that is is designed to be soothing, welcoming and not sterile. SAFE has calming colors on the walls, weighted blankets available, and plenty of magazines and books to read.

Currently, SAFE has three case managers and a drop in coordinator working at the center. 

Clients can schedule therapy for regular appointments or come in during moments of crisis as well. The center is available 24 hours a day and is also open to law enforcement who can go there to talk with victims of trafficking if they need a safe space to meet. 

There is a bathroom available at this center where survivors can shower and a place where they can do laundry. A kitchen in the space welcomes visitors to take snacks and is also the place where family-style meals are cooked for survivors each weekday.

Franklin noted sometimes case managers will try to bond with clients by spending time cooking together.

The kitchen at the SAFE Ascension drop-in center for youth survivors of sex trafficking. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Group meetings are hosted at the center each day of the week and movie nights are available as well for those who just want to hang out.

Computers and WiFi are at the ready for survivors who need to access to the internet or to search for jobs.

For those who may need an attorney, legal advocates come in once a week to offer help.

A “basic needs closet” in the center is stocked with essentials so that survivors can grab whatever they may need: clothes, diapers, car, seats, or hygiene products. Franklin explained that many of the survivors visiting the drop-in center have children.

Trafficking in Texas

According to a 2016 study from the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin, more than 300,000 Texans are victims of human trafficking, including nearly 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking. The study also determined that minor and youth sex trafficking costs the state of Texas around $6.6 billion each year.

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard is working on an in-depth report about this drop-in center.