It’s no secret that Atlanta is a center for sex trafficking activity. A busy international airport, the convergence of three major interstate highways, and a booming convention and sports industry create a ripe environment for the practice to flourish. And flourish it does as Atlanta repeatedly finds itself on many lists of top cities in the United States for human trafficking.
In an effort to raise awareness and educate state leaders on the breadth and depth of the sex trafficking problem in Atlanta, Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols began hosting an educational event he dubbed The Unholy Tour of Atlanta to take leaders on a tour of where sex trafficking is happening so they can see for themselves the environments that drive this industry, an industry the Urban Institute estimates is valued at $290 million a year in Atlanta alone.
While his day job is to regulate energy in the state of Georgia, Commissioner Echols works to affect policy by shining a light in the dark corners where the sex industry hides. He got the idea for the tour from the movie Amazing Grace, the story of the life of British abolitionist William Wilberforce. In the film, Wilberforce takes members of parliament on a tour of London’s harbor so they can see firsthand the sights, sounds, and smells of the slave ships docked in the harbor. Georgia’s leaders get the same type of up close view of what many call modern day slavery as they listen to local organizations and law enforcement officers tell the stories of girls and women they have rescued and the work they are doing to fight trafficking and help survivors get their lives back together. The tour begins, fittingly, at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Atlanta, the first stop for many women who find themselves in the Atlanta sex industry.
I recently went on my fourth Unholy Tour of Atlanta. The Georgia Commission on Women provides sack dinners for the participants—legislators and legislative aides, local leaders and advocates—who take the tour through the most notorious areas of Atlanta’s sex trade. It is an eye-opening and at times emotional night for those who are not familiar with how the trade operates. My first Unholy Tour changed me, and I wrote about that night here.
The areas the tour visits change a bit each year, but this year we returned to the area of Metro Atlanta we visited on my first tour. Fulton Industrial Boulevard, just a few short miles from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, is part of the newly formed city of South Fulton and is an infamous stretch of strip clubs, bars, and seedy hotels. Sadly, nothing much has changed in this area over time. The seedy hotels are still seedy, the neighborhood is still run down, leaders are still chasing solutions, and our fellow human beings—women and girls, boys and men—are still being exploited daily. Progress is being made, at least at the state level, but progress on the street and in the lives of these people is moving frustratingly slow.
One thing that made the tour different for me this time is I have actually set foot in the hotels we were driving by. As part of a project, I talked with the managers of these hotels and left behind materials with information for victims on how to find help. As chair of the GCW, I also sit on Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s Human Trafficking Task Force, and my work group focuses on helping hotels come into compliance with state law requiring them to post the human trafficking hotline number in the lobby and public restrooms. Our first project in 2016 was the area that is now the City of South Fulton.
Because this is a high crime area, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a fellow task force member, insisted we have local law enforcement officers accompany us on our hotel visits, and I had three community outreach officers from the Fulton County Police Department as my law enforcement escorts that day. We visited 10-12 hotels, left a copy of the law outlining what each hotel was required to do, and handed out posters that contained all required information printed in both English and Spanish. All the hotels had to do was hang them up.
I got a mixed response from hotel managers. Most nodded along with me, took the posters, and assured me they would post them. One handed me a roll of tape and told me to put them up wherever I thought best. A couple of managers talked earnestly about the problem of sex trafficking and steps they were taking to keep that kind of activity out of their hotels. At the worst hotel I visited—I had to walk around a used condom in the parking lot to get to the front door—the front desk employee met me with indifference, and I’m sure the posters and copy of the law went straight in the trash instead of the manager’s hands.
The sex trafficking issue is an interesting one to work on. At the legislative and policy level, there is the eternal struggle of keeping up with what the bad guys are doing. Gangs are moving into sex trafficking as a money-making business because they can sell a bag of drugs only one time, but they can sell woman 5-10 times a night. The streetwalker of Pretty Woman fame is not the rule now as most solicitation for prostitution has migrated online. A few years ago when Craig’s List shut down their escort section, Backpage.com popped up. As Backpage.com has been hobbled, others will come online to take its place. You get the problem snuffed out in one place, and it pops up in another. As one of my friends once said, “It’s like playing Whack-A-Mole with the Devil.”
At the community level, it is frustrating how slowly things get better, if they ever do. As a local organization helps a woman transition out of the sex industry, more are getting off the bus at the downtown bus station to get drawn into the trade. It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to break.
From survivors, though, I hear nothing but hope. Hope in the future. Hope for a full recovery. Hope that they can reach out and help others find hope and help for themselves.
The week before the 2018 Unholy Tour, I heard the testimony of a young survivor. She had battled addiction from a very young age, quit high school to get married, had a child at 17 years old, turned to prostitution because her trafficker supplied her drug habit, lost custody of her son, almost died of a drug overdose, and went to jail. In jail, a group called Out of Darkness found her and convinced her that she could get better. She said, “I didn’t know there was anyone out there who would love somebody like me.” Out of Darkness got her into a safe house and then a treatment program, and she is now an intake counselor for that treatment program. A success story.
For those of us who work as advocates for human trafficking victims, it is the survivors’ stories that keep us going. It is hard to hear these young women, and sometimes men, talk about the abuse, the beatings, the rapes, to know that they felt like they were garbage and no one cared, and to know it starts over again with a new crop of victims each day. But these survivors are the reason legislators and local leaders continue to get on that Unholy Tour bus year after year. Like the members of Parliament William Wilberforce took to the London Harbor, once they know about the lives victims lead they can’t unknow it and are compelled to take action.
Karla Jacobs is the chair of the Georgia Commission on Women and a member of the CJCC Human Trafficking Task Force. She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.