Bella Gonzales was first introduced to the life at age 16.
She remembers her older and trusted friend who subtly began to groom and push her towards the path.
“By the time I realized what happened, I was already in the life,” Gonzales says.
From sunset to sunrise, Gonzales would walk 82nd Avenue in Southeast Portland, waiting for someone to flash their lights or pull over into an alley.
After more than a year of life-threatening close calls, sexual violence and drug use, she decided to get out. She locked herself in a hotel room for three days to escape and detox.
It was short-lived.
Her once trusted friend and now pimp arrived at the hotel with six men to violently assault her.
“When the cops showed up, they took me to Harry’s Mother which is part of the Janus Youth Program. Three months later I came back to the Athena House.”
That was in 2010. Today, Gonzales is the lead residential counselor at Athena House, a shelter for sexually exploited children, run by Janus Youth Programs and funded by Multnomah County.
She shared her story before the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners during a presentation commemorating January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
“They (Athena House) did everything in their power to make sure that I was able to get resources. Food, clothing and shelter. I think I was the second person to ever live in the Athena House. I decided that I wanted to start doing something different.”
A 2013 study identified 469 minors who had been trafficked in Portland between 2009 and 2013. Organizations who serve minor victims have also identified over 600 possible adult victims.
Since it opened in the spring of 2010, more than 130 young people have accessed the Athena House -- 23 in 2016 alone, in addition to three newborns.
According to Janus Youth Executive Director Dennis Morrow 84 percent of human trafficking victims accessed safe housing options consistently in 2016.
“This proclamation today is a statement by the new county commission that we truly are a sanctuary, a place of safety off the streets for all of our children always,” Morrow said.
Natalie Weaver, collaboration specialist with the county’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ) and the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) described the county’s multi-agency and multi-pronged approach to the human trafficking crisis.
“In 2009, 16 agencies came together to sign the original memorandum of understanding to form the (CSEC) collaboration. We now have over 150 people working to combat sex trafficking in a variety of ways. These individuals represent government at every level federal, state, city, county non-profits, faith-driven organizations, the business community and even private individuals.”
The county has developed a system of care that includes shelter services, victim advocacy, mental health treatment, and tools for prosecution.
“They’re typically a young woman around 15-years-old who’s left a situation where there’s been poverty, abuse and neglect in the home and have been convinced by following this guy, there’s going to be love and affection and money in their future,” said Rose Bak of the Multnomah County Department of County Human Services (DCHS).
Bak highlighted the DCHS investment in shelter, housing and crisis response along with long range intensive services for young people up to age 21. Last year, DCJ partnered with DCHS and successfully wrote a grant to expand and enhance services to young adult victims, over the age of 18.
The Department of County Human Services also offers a legal program that helps trafficking victims with expungements, housing and job training programs.
“And sometimes it takes multiple times, sometimes people leave and come back and leave and come back but we think when they come back, it’s a victory,” exclaimed Bak.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury recognized former Commissioner Diane McKeel, who returned to Thursday’s board meeting for the proclamation. Over her eight years as Commissioner for District 4, McKeel was instrumental in establishing the CSEC program and partnerships.
“I don’t think we would be where we are today, helping survivors or prosecuting johns if it were not for her good work,” said Chair Kafoury.
Kafoury also commended Gonzales for giving back to the community and helping those who’ve been victims of trafficking.
“Having the lived experience is much more helpful to someone to be able to see that there is hope for the future,” said Kafoury.
For Gonzales, there was more than one occasion that she left the Athena House. But when she finally returned she asked to become a peer mentor, then staff member and eventually lead residential counselor.
She works with victims as young as 14-years-old, who’ve come to the refuge in times of great need and offers hope.
“They don’t understand how important their story can be and can make a huge difference for so many other people.”