The central San Joaquin Valley’s leading trafficking victims’ advocacy group is facing a cash strain that will lead to increased waiting times for victims’ services as well as greatly diminish the group’s efforts to educate and spread awareness on the dangers of human trafficking throughout six central California counties.
For nearly nine years, the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking project has offered shelter, food, counseling, legal service and more to the victims of sex and labor trafficking. It has identified more than 600 victims and provided more than 12,000 services in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern County.
However, the program lost federal funding in July that paid for EOC staff to provide outreach and training. It also recently received less than half of the $1 million in state grant funding it had asked for, which will now cause five of the project’s seven full-time caseworkers to work part-time. The program was already operating at nearly full capacity before the grants were reduced and will now have to put survivors who are not in need of immediate assistance on a waiting list for help.
“We have space for one more domestic client,” project director Melissa Gomez said in a Jan. 19 interview. Additional funding is available for victims who are not U.S. citizens through the federally funded Trafficking Victim Assistance Program through the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gomez stressed that trauma victims – men, women and children who need immediate medical, legal or housing assistance – will not be placed on a waiting list. The project will continue to fill its key role of riding along with law enforcement to offer immediate help to victims discovered during trafficker busts.
The waiting list will be for those clients referred to EOC from social services, the courts or other agencies who require long-term outpatient services – help with court appearances, rides to therapy, assistance with job/school applications and other services – Gomez said. The EOC will also attempt to refer these clients to other partner agencies who may have space.
Most of the EOC’s funding comes through state and federal grants, as people often mistakenly assume that the nonprofit Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission is a government entity. Through a Los Angeles County partner agency, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, it asked for $1 million over 12 months in California Office of Emergency Services funding. It received $450,000 over 15 months.
The Los Angeles coalition’s report notes that the typical pay and benefits for a human trafficking caseworker are $58,110, and those workers should have about 20 cases each.
By that standard, the EOC’s seven full-time caseworkers – five of who are funded through other local offices – would have required $406,000 in budgeted funds. Gomez chose to reduce the five outside caseworkers to half-time. This means her two remaining full-time workers have around 70 cases each.
If any additional money can be raised, Gomez said, her first priority would be hiring more caseworkers. Her employees’ casework is extensive, often lasting years. The EOC also provides services to victims’ children – everything from shelter and food to helping them get to school on time and fill out college applications. Gomez classified these children as secondary victims, as their parents’ trafficking often leads to emotional problems and instability.
Because of a lack of shelters and open beds in the area, victims often stay in hotels for weeks until a safe, permanent housing option can be found. Victims may also need food, therapy or health services that the EOC must find ways to pay for.
To combat rising costs and falling grant totals, the EOC hopes to improve fundraising across the board. It hopes to direct more people to its online donation website, where they can donate to the EOC as a whole or Sanctuary and Youth Services – the umbrella under which the trafficking project exists. The project also accepts gift card donations, which victims use to buy things like clothes and food.
Gomez said she’s also been in discussions with the offices of California State Assemblyman Jim Patterson and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to help with state and federal fundraising. An attempt to reach Feinstein’s office was not successful, but Patterson credited The Bee’s 2017 human trafficking project and a recent advocate bus tour through Fresno with moving the issue to the top of his list of priorities.
“It’s not one particular part of the city of Fresno that’s touched by it,” the former Fresno mayor said. “It’s all over. I saw the places where trafficking takes place, and it was a big wake-up call. (Human trafficking) has now risen to the top three or four representative priorities out of our office.”
Patterson said he couldn’t “get into the weeds” of exactly what he’s doing for the EOC but said his staff was looking into “all the ins and outs” of state funding options.
His office will also look to “get the message out there” to constituents. He noted that his office will use social media and its email network, which he said consists of around 50,000 constituents, to share the magnitude of the human trafficking problem and ask anyone interested in helping to donate to the EOC.
The EOC also hopes to raise money by selling tickets to its annual human trafficking conference on March 20. Tickets are $75, and the one-day event includes several workshops that cover a variety of issues, from law enforcement tactics to using art as a healing process for victims.
But much of Gomez’s effort goes toward just keeping the grants and funding the EOC already has. She pointed out that nonprofit fundraising is extremely competitive, and any technicality could lead to a grant request’s rejection. Larger metropolitan areas often get the bulk of the funding, she said, even though her agency delivered the second-highest number of services of the 21 currently applying for state emergency services funding. Only several agencies in Los Angeles County provided more, according to information submitted to the state by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
She hopes getting the word out will lead to more success with government grants.