From Prostitution Arrests Data Exploration to Soap Distribution Outreach

A soap bar with a label noting the National Human Trafficking Hotline

A soap bar with a label noting the National Human Trafficking Hotline

Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted? If so, please call: 1-888-3737-888 National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Being an intern at SumAll.org and joining in their exploration of Division of Criminal Justice Services data with Sanctuary for Families and the NYS Anti-Trafficking Coalition has made me want to learn more about human trafficking and prostitution--but something I want to see, what I don’t necessarily see at work, is the the human side of the issue. In every instance where we analyze the data or scrutinize a visualization, I think about each person represented as that number. What is that person’s life story? How did he or she become a involved as a person solicited or a perpetrator in this lucrative crime?

On January 30th, I decided to join a group of enthusiastic volunteers organized by S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescence from Prostitution) and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, to fight against sex-trafficking--this includes under-age prostitution to NJ/NYC hotels right before the SuperBowl.  Naturally, this was the unique opportunity for me take on.

S.O.A.P. was founded by Theresa Flores, a sex-trafficking survivor. She noticed that the three things every hotel and motel has: a Bible, toilet paper and a bar of soap.  She also found that there was one thing every person involved in prostitution had in common, he or she would always wash up with soap after being with a client.  Therefore, Flores had the innovative idea to place the National Trafficking Hotline on a label of the bar of soap (pictured on left).  From there, the outreach events began and volunteers prepared and distributed bars of soap in areas of the United States.  Personally, it was so powerful to imagine that a victim’s way out of trafficking can be placed on an item that’s so ordinary.

January 30, 2014: Training for group of volunteers involved in the S.O.A.P project

January 30, 2014: Training for group of volunteers involved in the S.O.A.P project

For this particular outreach event, we were asked to distribute 10,000 soap bars that were prepared by another group of volunteers on the prior Wednesday. Our group of volunteers was assigned to canvass 50 hotels in the Manhattan area in one night.  Before heading out into the cold, we were briefed for on what human trafficking is and how people become involved in such situations.  We were also trained on how to communicate effectively with hotel staff.

Materials to distribute along with soap bars

Materials to distribute along with soap bars

My partner and I  were assigned to four hotels in the Chinatown area. The task was simple: distribute (1) a large poster noting the National Human Trafficking Hotline and trafficking warning signs (2) a packet of missing victims’ photos, and, (3) the 300+ bars of soaps for each hotel. In actuality it sounds simple, but terrifyingly nerve wrecking. I had to push past all those fears of potentially being rejected by hotel staff and focus on the real objective.  

For our first assigned hotel, we were in the area near the Manhattan bridge of Chinatown.  The hotel staff were a bit confused about what we were trying to do, but as soon as they heard the words “free soaps”,  they gladly received our items.  Of course, we also had to first inform them about the issue of missing and exploited children. They were so enthusiastic that they were asking us to post the poster immediately. Sadly, we did not even have scotch tape with us!

Front entrance of a hotel

Front entrance of a hotel

Most of the other hotels’ staff had the same reaction. I feel that as long as we were smiling and courteous, they would most likely accept.  The volunteer coordinators informed us that the third hotel on our list might not be as receptive to the materials we were handing out; however we actually ran out of soap bars to distribute because every hotel accepted them from us!  We don’t know what exactly the staff members will do with the soaps and posters. It is out of our hands, but it is my sincere hope that the hotline reaches the people who need it the most.

I’m honestly not quite sure how much research the volunteer coordinators have done for these specific hotels, but I definitely felt some strange aura around these areas.  I have  walked past these hotels multiple times and had no idea that there can be a possibility that people’s lives were in danger. Oftentimes, even if I were to see something suspicious, I would scurry past and ignore it, hoping not to get involved.

Even though I participated in such a minuscule task, I am hoping that it can have huge impact and save someone’s life.  After the event, I searched up the hotels that we visited and read the reviews.  All I can say is that I am shocked and it makes me heartbroken that other guests have witnessed suspicious activity and did not report it to the authorities--instead leaving review on Yelp.  However, I know I am guilty of that as well.  We all, including myself, need to know the warning signs of not only sex-trafficking, but also labor-trafficking and any other types of exploitation.  Most importantly, we all need to be more aware of what exactly is happening under our noses.  he next time we are analyzing prostitution and potential sex-trafficking data here at SumAll.org, I am hoping to see the numbers of those involved would lower drastically, not only because of this one outreach event, but also because there is an increased amount of awareness of this social injustice.

Written by Chi Nga Pinky Chan