Halfway to Safe: Knoxville Anti-Trafficking Group Hopes to Open Safe House in Fall

In The Daily Dumpster Blog by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

A Knoxville program that provides support to local human trafficking victims has a new name and is at least halfway to its goal of opening a Knoxville safe house for survivors.

Grow Free Tennessee, an initiative of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, aims to eventually house and support up to 16 women for around six months while they stabilize, says executive director Kate Trudell.

Grow Free Tennessee is one of four non-profits the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has designated a “single point of contact” for survivors of sex trafficking, and the only one without access to a local safe house. The agency is the regional partner for upper East Tennessee, where it helps raise awareness about trafficking, trains service providers and law enforcement to recognize the crime and help victims, and provides individualized after-care to women who were forced or coerced into selling sex.

On its website, the group says the new name for its survivor-services arm reflects its focus on the personal growth of survivors as they achieve newfound freedom – as well as growth in community understanding of the problem.

Grow Free Tennessee had identified a property for the safe house, but the deal fell through on the seller’s side for reasons unrelated to the intended use of the property, Trudell says. The agency is restarting the process of looking for properties in rural areas of South Knoxville near Alcoa Highway, an area that has more houses with attached acreage that are set back from the road and neighbors. Trudell says Grow Free Tennessee has raised $200,000 toward the purchase of a house, with $170,000 more committed for donation in the fall.

Pilot and the Haslam Family Foundation have each pledged $250,000 over three years (for a total of $500,000) for the project. Grow Free Tennessee is also seeking local, regional and state government funding, which it doesn’t receive now.

Trudell hopes the safe house can open in October, initially serving eight women with a director of survivor services, two case managers, and supporting staff. Eventually she hopes to tap a former trafficking victim to become a survivor intervention specialist.

A small fundraiser is underway to support Grow Free Tennessee, and the proceeds will also go toward the house, Trudell says.

Alexandra Bruse, an independent sales consultant with direct sales company Thirty-One Gifts and a volunteer for Grow Free Tennessee, is holding a tote bag fundraiser. Anyone may purchase certain Thirty-One products with profits varying from $8.75 to $20 going to Grow Free Tennessee. The fundraiser lasts through March 22, and products will be shipped to Grow Free Tennessee for pickup between April 10 and April 14. For more information, contact Bruse via email at alexandrakaybrown@gmail.com or submit an order at https://goo.gl/forms/bMgVusAG8.

Human trafficking has become a high-profile cause in recent weeks partly due to the “End It” movement’s national “Shine a Light on Slavery Day” promotion in February. Many local leaders and University of Tennessee students used social media to share pictures of themselves with a red “x” on their hands in support of x-ing out slavery.

Among them was Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who successfully pushed funding through Congress last year to fight “modern-day slavery” abroad (generally in the form of forced, unpaid labor). Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump, met with Corker last week to learn more about the cause, after prompting her father to hold a “listening session” with anti-trafficking organizations the previous week.

Although these efforts are raising awareness about the problem, they aren’t really helping Knoxville-area victims in a practical way, Trudell says.

The Congressional anti-slavery funding Corker championed “has zero impact on domestic slavery,” she says. “It’s great that it’s elevated this discussion around trafficking, especially having someone from state of Tennessee having this issue be their mantle,” she says. “But in a lot of ways it detracts from some of the real needs that are here in our communities…. You put a red x on your hand, that’s great – But we need to recognize what direct efforts are.”

Trudell says the point-of-contact agencies have spoken with Corker’s staff about the need to also spotlight homegrown slavery and those working with survivors on the ground.

“Staff understood our position, but we haven’t seen a whole lot of movement on that,” she says.

NOTE: Errors in name spelling and characterization of the relationship between Grow Free Tennessee and the Coalition Against Human Trafficking were corrected in this article.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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