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Let’s Not Ignore the Tragedy of Human Trafficking

by Ted Blum

More and more people every day are facing tragic circumstances both in Atlanta and beyond. Health challenges, hunger, lack of housing, unemployment, barriers to education – these topics dominate the news cycle and sadly are hardly news to many of us anymore. As difficult as it is to think of much else, horrible things like human trafficking still exist and persist in these bad times, as well as the good. The current realities of social distancing and mask mandates as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic seem as though they might hinder its growth, but unfortunately, the opposite is happening.

Building awareness for and fighting against human trafficking has played an important role in my life. For the past three years, I have had the honor of serving as chair of the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and have learned a tremendous amount about the human trafficking epidemic that has hit Atlanta particularly hard. When I first got involved in this fight, a big question loomed for me – why Atlanta? Why is human trafficking such a painful reality for our great city?

Ten years ago, in her former role as U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Georgia, Sally Yates spoke to the Rotary Club of Atlanta about human trafficking. She stressed the severity of the crisis in our city by explaining something we all knew to be true. Atlanta is a transportation hub, home to the world’s busiest airport and multiple major highways that converge in the city, making it easy and efficient to import and export goods across our nation. Tragically, this ease and efficiency also make the city an attractive hub for the buying, selling, and distribution of people as a commodity.

Compounding the problem is youth homelessness. According to Covenant House Georgia, a nonprofit that offers shelter for homeless, abused, and trafficked children, homeless youth are often disconnected from family and friends and particularly susceptible to traffickers. It’s easy to lure these youth with the promise of food, warmth, and even false love.

According to a recent Georgia State University study, an estimated 3,300+ homeless and runaway youth between the ages of 14-25 were living on the streets of metro Atlanta in 2018. The study anonymously surveyed and interviewed 564 youths from September to November 2018 and researchers found 54.1 percent of metro Atlanta’s homeless youth experienced human trafficking in their lifetime, 36.7 percent while homeless. These numbers are estimated to be even higher today.

After learning about these harrowing statistics and realizing that organizations like Covenant House were at capacity with only 15 beds in some facilities, the Rotary Club of Atlanta knew we had a responsibility to get involved and quickly formed the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. One of our first initiatives was finding and securing a new Covenant House campus that could provide additional beds and services needed to serve the homeless youth population.

Above: Dexter Warrior, William Pate, Bob Hope and Clark Dean participating in the Covenant House executive sleepout. A group from the club participates every year.

Above: Clark Dean and Bob Hope at Covenant House Sleepout.

The Task Force participated in and helped organize a breakfast for Atlanta CEOs, a business summit hosted by Delta Airlines’ CEO Ed Bastian and Senior Vice President Allison Ausband, who have led the anti-trafficking initiatives within Delta. They also hosted multiple roundtable discussions that brought business leaders together, encouraging them to get involved in the fight against human trafficking.

Above: Christian Fisher, CEO of Georgia Pacific, Allison Ausband of Delta Air Lines, Clark Dean, Ted Blum, and Martha Brooks at the CEO breakfast on human trafficking hosted by the Rotary Club of Atlanta and Delta CEO Ed Bastian at Delta.

Above: Delta CEO Ed Bastian and Ted Blum at the Rotary Club of Atlanta anti-human trafficking breakfast at Delta.

Above: Ted Blum and Dan Cathy at CEO anti-trafficking breakfast.

At one of our roundtable discussions, the FBI explained that young girls are viewed as the highest valued commodity in the sex trafficking community. The reason: they can be sold time and time again, trafficked in different cities, across state lines throughout the U.S. and abroad. As a father myself of a young adult daughter, one of the most harrowing statistics I have learned is that the average age of a young woman first sold into sex trafficking is 12-14 years old. As painful as it is to hear these stories, they are real. And they are powerful.

The reaction has been unanimous – countless business leaders across the city and across industries have pledged their support and resources to accelerate existing anti-trafficking programs. Together we are working to launch future initiatives.

At a recent Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force roundtable, Sgt. Ernest Britton of the Atlanta Police Department noted that law enforcement and the Atlanta business community have an unusual bond of cooperation that has evolved out of fighting human trafficking. Sgt Britton observed that while business communities and police forces in some major cities tend to be at odds over their approach to combating local problems, that’s not the case in Atlanta. Here we operate in sync when it comes to the fight against human trafficking. That synergy didn’t just happen overnight.

Around the same time that the Task Force was formed, Atlanta was chosen to host the Super Bowl, which brought national attention to the issue of human trafficking in our city. Georgia’s first lady, Marty Kemp, formed the GRACE Commission (Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion, and Education) comprised of public officials, law enforcement, for-profit and non-profit organizations, faith-based institutions, and subject matter experts all working together to combat the threat of human trafficking in Georgia. In reflecting on the past three years that I’ve become intimately involved in fighting human trafficking in Atlanta, it’s amazing to think of how many people have joined the fight. Much has happened and significant progress has been made.

However, the problem persists and is getting worse. The greater the economic impact of the pandemic becomes, the greater the population who is struggling to find safe and affordable housing. In turn, homelessness is on the rise.

The sad reality about human trafficking is most of it happens out of sight and it is very easy to ignore. Many homeless, particularly teenagers, are approached about sex within 72 hours of being on the streets. It remains a major problem, one we most certainly should not ignore.

I am proud of the work the Rotary Club of Atlanta has done along with a variety of other organizations to not only draw attention to this problem, but work hand-in-hand to abolish human trafficking in our city. Remarkable progress has been made. Let’s keep up the battle and eventually rid our city of this distressing reality, as well as our reputation as a hub for human trafficking.

Rotary Club of Atlanta awards Delta’s Allison Ausband with the club’s Service Above Serve Award for its work on human trafficking. L to R: Ted Blum, Allison Ausband and Dave Moody.

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