In the San Antonio neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., sex trafficking has been a problem since several motels moved into the community decades ago attracting pimps. Last year, All Things Considered and Youth Radio collaborated on an investigative series from young people’s point of view that revealed what it’s like being sex trafficked and also how police efforts to combat the problem often criminalize young women. Since then, the community has stepped up its response.
Over the past year, parents and advocates in the San Antonio neighborhood became active when they realized pimps were targeting their middle school girls.
“It happens at the bus stops, it happens in front of homes, and it happens in front of schools,” says Nhuanh Ly, program coordinator for Banteay Srei, a group that works with neighborhood girls to build self-esteem and teach them how to avoid being recruited by pimps.
School district officials say it’s hard to prevent because the pimps just look like regular guys.
“Not too long ago, one of the girls who attends our after-school program called me and she was really, really distraught. She was like, ‘Nhuanh! Nhuanh! I can’t believe this just happened! A pimp just tried to recruit me and he actually picked me up in his car,’ ” Ly says.
Ly says the average age at which girls get recruited into trafficking in the U.S. is 12. People often think girls end up being trafficked because they were kidnapped. But many times, it can start with a seduction or even a relationship. So Ly encourages families to have frank conversations early about dating and sex.
“Yeah, it’s awkward talking to your parents about sex, right? A common response for parents is to try to shut their children away from seeing this. But the reality is that it’s so visible and it’s so prevalent that we can’t do that,” she says.
It’s so prevalent that families can look outside their windows and see pimps.
Reynaldo and Jody Terrazas raised two girls in this neighborhood. They live a block from the National Lodge motel that the community has been fighting for years, saying pimps run their business from it. From their living room, the Terrazases also have a view of International Boulevard where girls, some barely teenagers, stand on the corners.
“Little girls, you bet,” Jody says. “Very skinny. They probably weigh 100 pounds, maybe 115 pounds. Some of them look very confident and bold about what they are doing. And then there are times they look like they are trying to get away, to hide. They don’t want to be here.”
At the National Lodge motel, you have to be buzzed in. A small women sits behind a thick glass window like a bank teller. She wouldn’t answer any questions. Later, Rita Patel answers the phone in the office. She’s part of the family that owns the motel.
“No, we don’t accept prostitutes here,” she says when asked about neighbors’ fears of sexual exploitation of minors. “No we don’t.”
Andy Nelson, deputy director for organizing and public policy at East Bay Youth Center, says he’s pleased that the City of Oakland has officially joined the fight and is suing to shut down the National Lodge motel for allowing prostitution and sexual exploitation of minors.
“Since we started pushing, there were a couple more officers who were assigned here and there is been a lot more willingness to talk to us and to try to work collaboratively … the concern is, you know, what would happen if we stopped pushing,” Nelson says.
That pushing includes marches, rallies, and meetings with the mayor, the City Council and the police. So what’s Nelson’s motivation to keep pushing? His 4-year-old daughter.
“As she gets older, it’s going to be challenging. But every time I see a young girl out there, you know,” Nelson says, choking up. “Every time I see a young girl out there, I see my daughter.”
Until recently, Nelson says a lot of neighborhood parents felt there was nothing that could be done to stop sex trafficking. He says getting rid of the National Lodge motel is not going to solve the problem, but it would be a big accomplishment.
Nelson and others won’t give up the idea that Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood can be a good place to raise kids.