Equipped with the skills to sew, survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking can gain financial independence to break free from their abusers.
That is the vision of the first initiative launched by the new Mayor’s Office of Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence. Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday announced the creation of the new office, which expands on the city’s existing anti-human trafficking division.
The new office will aim to improve economic conditions for survivors while curtailing domestic violence and human trafficking, officials said.
“While there is a complexity to this issue, one thing we want to focus on is the aspect of financial or economic abuse that victims of domestic violence and human trafficking experience,” Turner said Monday, noting that abusers often steal money from victims, force them to rack up debt or prevent them from working.
The mayor has won praise from the Trump administration for taking aggressive steps to combat trafficking, though Houston remains a hub for labor and sex trafficking. Turner’s critics have questioned the effectiveness of the city’s anti-trafficking efforts, noting that outdoor trafficking is on the rise on the Bissonnet Track.
The office’s first program, called the MAKR Collective, aims to address the financial abuse that often keeps people from leaving or pulls them back into domestic violence or trafficking situations, said Minal Davis, director of the new office.
“(Survivors) need a path forward that has to do with financial independence and economic empowerment, to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” Davis said.
The city partnered with Magpies and Peacocks, a nonprofit design house in Houston, to create the entrepreneurship program, scheduled to begin Oct. 1.
Participants will learn how to sew during three month-long training sessions using Magpie and Peacock’s materials, tools and instruction. By the end, trainees — who need not have prior experience — will be able to make five products. Each session will include six people, who will get paid a stipend.
After training, program participants will have plenty of flexible work opportunities, Davis said. They can become independent makers for Magpies and Peacocks, which pays per product, or launch their own business by building a client-base through social media.
The earning potential of a medium-skill independent maker at Magpie and Peacocks is $20,000, Davis said.
“The thing I love about that most is you’d get a new label,” Davis said. “Instead of survivor of abuse, you’d now be a designer.”
Sewing can be therapeutic for victims of abuse because of the hands-on engagement, the excitement of learning a new skill and the rewarding feeling from creating something, said Ahshia Berry, vice president of Magpies and Peacocks.
Applications for the program have poured in since it was announced to referral agencies earlier this month, Davis said. The participants will be chosen based on their readiness, commitment and case management referrals.
“So, we know that we’ve really hit something here … we have not stopped getting applications,” she said.
The pilot program is funded by private donors, including the NFL, Houston Endowment, Grant Me the Wisdom Foundation and the Frees Foundation, Davis said.
Davis said she hopes to expand on a similar entrepreneurship model if other businesses are interested in getting involved.
Beyond the MAKR Collective, the new city office will do policy work, conduct social media campaigns and create community dialogue surrounding issues of gender-based violence and gender equity, Davis said. It also will focus on neglected areas of the city by using data and mapping tools to find “service deserts” where residents are not reporting incidents of trafficking and domestic violence, according to a 19-page strategic plan for the new office.
Many women have creative talents in art or food or beauty that often go overlooked, said Rachna Khare, executive director of Daya, a nonprofit serving South Asian domestic violence victims. Those skills, along with the grit and resilience possessed by abuse survivors, can be used for economic empowerment — the key to ending cyclic violence.
“It gives people a lot of hope and a lot of things to look forward to,” Khare said. “And the permission to dream big, when a lot of times that psychological abuse, that emotional abuse has taken that autonomy and that self esteem away from folks.”
The expansion of the mayor’s office to include domestic violence work comes amid a surge in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay-at-home orders and economic hardship have exacerbated the issue, prompting city officials in April to launch a partnership with advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies that provides resources to victims.
Houston won acclaim from the White House for its anti-trafficking policies in 2018, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said city “now boasts one of the most comprehensive and forward-leaning anti-trafficking programs anywhere in the United States.” However, Turner’s critics say the city’s programs have done little to reduce the amount of trafficking in Houston.
In 2018, Turner touted an anti-prostitution injunction in a southwest Houston neighborhood known internationally for street trafficking. The injunction targeting dozens of alleged prostitutes, pimps and customers still is pending in court.
Turner, asked Monday if he still supports the injunction, noted that the county and not the city filed the lawsuit, though he did not say if his views have changed.
In the meantime, outdoor trafficking is rising on the Bissonnet Track.
“It’s worse… They’re younger and they move them in and out,” said Kathryn Griffin, a former prostitute who runs a recovery program for the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office called, We’ve Been There, Done That.
A former prostitute who uses the name “Zoey” said when she left the Harris County Jail after years of drug addiction, the city’s program never reached out to her. She tried connecting with them but never heard back: “No bed, no shelter, no nothing.”
Gabrielle Banks contributed to this report.