Only four other states in the country have more human trafficking reports than Ohio, according to the Human Trafficking Hotline.
But soon, survivors of the illegal trade in central Ohio will have a safe place to stay in a housing project that could be the first of its kind.
Several community partners have partnered with the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority to fund a $15.6 million housing complex that will provide full services in Franklinton.
“Ohio is literally ranked fifth out of all states in the country, in total human trafficking cases. We knew immediately that ACSM, as the housing authority, had the means and had to do something to somehow help this population,” said CMHA Executive Director Scott Sharlach.
Sharlach said the construction site is on the grounds of a hotel that was once part of the local traffic network. So they invited people who had been trafficked there to vent their frustration.
“We actually brought in a few victims, a few residents here who were victimized there, and let them help tear down the building that they were victimized in. So it was very, it was very moving, we gave him a helmet. and a sledgehammer, and they’re literally helping to destroy the place,” he said.
People referred to the housing project will be able to stay there as long as they need to start a new life. Housing and lack of support is often one of the biggest obstacles to finding a way out of a human trafficking situation, Scharlach said. So income-tested housing with guaranteed rental assistance could be a lifesaver.
“It will be a beacon of hope for these victims who have suffered horrific trauma and just need a little help to get back on their feet,” Scharlach said.
These comprehensive services that will be offered to those participating in the program will be tailored to the individual experiences of the residents and will put them in contact with professional and educational resources.
“We really built this project to focus on the safety, the safe place and the services for the residents that will surround them, that will help them get back on their feet and find a job or an education,” Scharlach said. .
The name of the development, Harriet’s Hope, is named after Harriet Tubman, the woman who helped free enslaved people after escaping slavery herself.
Scharlach said the project honors the abolitionist and draws inspiration from his work.
“(Tubman) used her freedom to make sure she dedicated her life to freeing other people and other people from slavery. So the project really fits the mold. (Human Trafficking ) is like the modern slavery that we have right in front of us,” he said.
Developer Beacon 360 is expected to begin construction on the 52-unit complex next month. The supportive housing community is expected to open in 2024.
Scharlach said Beacon 360 CEO Celia Kendall came to ACSM about three years ago with the idea for the project.
“It is important to emphasize the uniqueness of this type of development,” Kendall said in a press release. “We will offer a holistic and trauma-informed approach to service delivery, including on-site behavioural, mental and physical health services in partnership with local providers and peer support groups, to encourage the rehabilitation and self-sufficiency.”
The exact location of the development is not made public to protect future residents.
Scharlach said he would like to see other housing authorities develop similar partnerships and models to provide trafficked people with a way out. He thinks this could be the first such development.
“It’s definitely a project or design that could be replicated,” he said.
ACSM is securing rental assistance through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s federal voucher program to help make the project financially viable. Over the course of the 20-year contract, ACSM will provide between $6 million and $7 million in rental assistance to support the project. Residents will also contribute part of their income.
State legislators provided funding in the state budget and several other organizations did as well – the Columbus and Franklin County Affordable Housing Trust, the Ohio, City of Columbus, Park National Bank, Federal Home Loan Bank, Ohio Capital Impact Corporation, and Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing.