Fighting sex trafficking in Atlanta

Haven ATL wants to turn an old house into a drop-in center to help victims of commercial sexual exploitation

Atlanta ranks among the top 14 cities in the nation for commercial sexual exploitation of children. In 2007 (the last year for which key data was available), Atlanta’s underground sex economy netted $290 million from an extensive network of prostitution. Worldwide, the sex trade industry produces almost $10 billion annually.

It’s numbers like these that keep Hillary DeJarnett up at night. As co-founder and program director of Haven ATL, a nonprofit with a mission to end sex trafficking in metro Atlanta and beyond, DeJarnett and her team, including co-founder Sandra Pobjie-Pawar, work to help women go from victims of abuse to leaders in their communities.

“These girls are powerful,” DeJarnett says. “They’re smart. They’re intelligent. They just really need support and they need to be held accountable and have a place to grow, so that’s what we try to do.”

The idea for Haven came to DeJarnett in 2011 while working on her master’s thesis in nonprofit management at the University of Georgia. The assignment turned into a full-time job after DeJarnett presented the idea to Pobjie-Pawar. The pair officially established Haven ATL that summer as a program of the Salvation Army (DeJarnett’s parents are Salvation Army officers).

Haven ATL assists women, girls, and transgendered individuals of all ages who have experienced exploitation. Local shelters, including Salvation Army’s Red Shield Downtown, which has transgender dorms and houses same-sex families in need, among other things, refers victims of commercial sexual exploitation directly to Haven. While the shelters provide housing in the evening, Haven ATL works around the clock to get the women back on their feet with counseling, education, and job training.

Haven ATL currently operates out of the Salvation Army’s 53,000-square-foot Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in the Pittsburgh neighborhood. Later this year, Haven ATL will move into its own drop-in center and offices. The donated house, also in Pittsburgh, will provide a more intimate setting where the 20 women involved in Haven ATL will be able to experience its services under one roof, including counseling and mentorship, job training, cooking classes, yoga, and voluntary Bible study, among other things. There’s a community garden in the backyard, where the women have been working together, learning about farming, and developing a sense of pride in how their landscaping work is paying off.

“I think the house is truly going to be that haven for the women,” DeJarnett says. “That place that they can come and know that they are safe and know that they are loved.”

As part of Creative Loafing’s Do Good Campaign, a series of grassroots partnerships with local organizations, we’re collaborating with Haven ATL to raise funds to renovate the new drop-in center and help landscape the yard and garden. Do Good partner the Home Depot Foundation will match the money raised with in-kind donations up to $2,500. All funds raised and matching donations from Home Depot Foundation will go directly to Haven ATL in support of the Pittsburgh drop-in center.

Haven’s relationship to the Salvation Army initially raised concerns for us at Creative Loafing because of instances of the organization’s reported discrimination toward the LGBT community. Creative Loafing is a strong supporter of gay rights and the fight for equal rights in which the LGBT community is engaged.

“I know that there have been issues in the past that have been brought up with the Salvation Army, but those were isolated instances and I can assure you that the Salvation Army does not discriminate in who we serve as reflected in our mission statement. Our shelter in Atlanta actually has specific services for Transgendered homeless individuals. Haven ATL has served LGBT individuals and we want to continue to champion serving individuals regardless of their background,” DeJarnett said in an email earlier this spring. “My hope was that this Do Good partnership would help bridge and repair the relationship between the LGBT community and the Salvation Army — it could open the door for reconciliation and positive change.”

Pam, a former madam who turned to the sex trade after her family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, sought help at Haven after being arrested. Pam works with DeJarnett’s team to reach out to individuals in the community who may be too afraid or ashamed to seek help. She’s now one of the organization’s community leaders and helps get women, girls, and transgendered individuals out of the industry rather than into it.

“I kept trying to do it by myself and I kept falling back into it,” she says. “If you’re already thinking about changing, Haven ATL is the place to actually make it happen.”