Advocates for victims of human trafficking are urging Central Oregon businesses to post information about how to escape in their bathroom stalls before the total solar eclipse later this month.
The eclipse, which is expected to bring hundreds of thousands of people to Central Oregon, could result in more cases of people being bought or sold for sex, said Nita Belles, executive director of the anti-trafficking organization In Our Backyard.
“We know with the increase in population and the party atmosphere surrounding the eclipse, there will be an increase in human trafficking,” Belles said.
Her organization produces “Freedom Stickers,” which contain instructions for how to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline and say, in both English and Spanish, “People are not property. There is freedom from those who are hurting you.” More than 60,000 of these stickers can be found in public bathrooms throughout the country.
Belles took the idea for the stickers from “shoe cards” used in domestic violence outreach. These small cards, often left in public restrooms, contain information about abuse and phone numbers for domestic violence and rape crisis hotlines. Victims can easily slip the cards into their shoes and stash them until they’re ready to seek help.
“When things go wrong, they’ve got that number to call,” she said. “Victims of human trafficking often don’t have that luxury because they may be strip-searched.”
Trafficking victims, unlike consenting adults who voluntarily exchange money for sex acts, are controlled by another person. They tend to be girls and young women, though boys and men can also be trafficked and In Our Backyard has stickers for men’s bathrooms.
A trafficker typically keeps a stable of victims and selects one from the group as his favorite, Belles said. This favorite is expected to watch the other victims, meaning that even in a public women’s bathroom, victims aren’t alone.
However, this favorite doesn’t follow victims into bathroom stalls, and they’re able to use their phones to text the help line, Belles said.
“They have phones because that’s how the trafficker keeps tabs on them,” she said.
Annual calls to the trafficking hotline have nearly doubled in Oregon since 2012, and the number of cases reported each year has risen from 44 in 2012 to 72 last year. Freedom Stickers are mailed out to businesses each time they renew their liquor licenses, due to a 2015 state law.
Belles asked the Bend City Council on Wednesday to help distribute the stickers to other businesses. Councilor Barb Campbell said it would be easy for the city to send letters or stickers to businesses.
“(Human trafficking) is a problem, and it seems to me that this is a really simple, simple thing that we can at least ask,” Campbell said.
Councilors Justin Livingston and Nathan Boddie and Mayor Casey Roats said they’d be interested in sharing the information with business owners, and Mayor pro tem Sally Russell said the Downtown Bend Business Association also could distribute stickers.
City of Bend business advocate Ben Hemson said he has to look at the best way to distribute them because the city only sends mail to businesses once a year. It would be easier to communicate with businesses through social media, he said.
Anti-trafficking advocates and law enforcement agencies in the 14 states in the eclipse’s path are trying to be more vigilant as the eclipse nears, citing concerns that more people will bring more sex trafficking.
Similar concerns pop up every year before the Super Bowl, but they’re often overblown. Host cities tend to make the same number of prostitution, solicitation and trafficking arrests during Super Bowl week as they do in other weeks, despite increased attention.
Businesses or individuals can request the stickers through a form on the organization’s website. Belles said she also is looking for volunteers to help distribute the stickers.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org