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Safe house provides lifeline for young sex workers

PHOENIX — At just 15 years old, Carolyn Jones was forced to sell her body. The runaway would jump in and out of cars day and night in the heart of Van Buren’s red-light district.

“Walking this street today makes me realize how many nights I just cried for a way out. Wanting somebody to come and help me,” Jones said, reflecting on the years she spent walking Van Buren and 16th streets.

Today, there is help for the Valley’s youngest sex slaves, who have been brainwashed to think selling their bodies is the only way to survive.

Located in Peoria, StreetLight USA is the country’s largest organization dedicated to restoring these girls’ lives. For nearly two years, they’ve housed dozens of girls who were once sold like property.

“Most of the girls that come to us are around age 15,” said Lea Benson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Streetlight USA. “In many instances the girls will be [malnourished] and they are both physically and emotionally abused by the time they get to us.”

Many of the girls were coerced into the sex-trafficking industry. Seeking affirmation from someone who will care for them, they’re lied to and promised a better life.

“What happens is that they run into the perpetrators who coerce them into thinking that it will be fine,” Benson said. “This person could be a brother, it could be a sister, it could be an aunt. We have moms that are pimping their daughters out.”

Statistics show the average age of girls being trafficked in Phoenix is 13.

“The girls are expected to perform sometime 10 to 20 times a day. That’s 10 to 20 times that a girl is raped on a daily basis,” Benson said.

Benson said it’s not uncommon to hear stories about 11-year-olds being trafficked.

It becomes a way to survive, to have clothes, to be fed, and have a roof over your head, said Jones. For some, eventually the sex trade becomes a way to support a drug habit.

The girls arrive at the two-year-old campus via referrals from Child Protective Services, police, FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Their new home consists of six cottages on well-landscaped and maintained property. The four-bedroom cottages can house up to 60 girls, ages 11-17. The program includes education (they are expected to earn a GED) and counseling services. When they turn 18 and have to leave, they are assisted in getting jobs.

Benson said with the help of counselors on the StreetLight campus, they’re able to help their girls understand there is a better life for them.

“Once they actually start to admit what they’ve been through, the treatment actually starts,” Benson said.

Jones is part of that treatment. A frequent visitor to StreetLight, she serves as a mentor, speaking one-on-one with girls who’ve been told they’ll never amount to anything.

“It takes love, patience and tolerance,” said Jones, who describes herself as a survivor. “And then you really have to just start planting good seeds in them and then start telling them who you see them as.”

In December, three girls who have been living at the safe house for the past year will leave, pursue careers and make their own money. They’ll be StreetLight’s first success stories.