For decades, Aurora Ave in North Seattle was known for prostitution. Women on street corners and men pulling over to pick them up was a common sight.
That all changed as the Web 2.0 era ushered in online forums and social media, and the process for buying and selling sex moved online. As a marketplace, it was more private for buyers, and in many ways, safer for sellers—as they could now screen their clients rather than just getting into a stranger’s car. Backpage.com entered the scene in 2004, and when Craigslist stopped listing “adult” or “erotic” services in 2010, Backpage exploded and soon grew to account for 80% marketplace for sex in the United States.
Over time, less activity was seen on Aurora—but the sex trade didn’t disappear, just the public’s ability to see it. As the market moved onto the internet, REST also shifted our efforts away from street outreach to using text messages to reach people being sold online.
In April of 2018, the federal government seized and shut down Backpage. In a blog earlier this year, we wrote about the unintended consequences of the shutdown—and among them was a resurgence in sex trade activity on the streets.
That’s why we recently relaunched our Street Outreach Team.
“We’re relaunching because of the influx of street trafficking.” Said Jackie Loos, Outreach Coordinator at REST. “For many years, you could barely tell who’s out there—but now you’ve got women out there wearing next to nothing. I stood out there for about ten minutes one night, and I was able to watch four or five girls get into buyers’ cars.”
Jackie is leading the Street Outreach Team, and is extremely passionate about outreach; as a survivor herself, she knows firsthand the difference it can make in someone’s life. “I remember what it was like being out there on the street when I was able to connect with the street outreach ladies, who had become a trusted presence on the corner.” That was over a decade ago—now Jackie is a REST staff member, and offering the same freedom, safety, and hope to the women who are back on the streets today.
REST wants to meet sexually exploited individuals where they’re at—so if they’re online, we’ll reach out online—and if they’re on the streets, we’ll be there, too, inviting them into a community and offering unconditional care, love, and hope for a future outside of the sex trade.
For now, Street Outreach team is seeking to become a recognizable presence on “the track”—a popular segment of Aurora where the sex trade seems to be most prevalent. And they are certainly visible, wearing bright red jackets with our logo and hotline number on the back. They’re often known as the “condom ladies” because along with offering a compliment to open the conversation, they will offer free condoms and a gift bag. The conversations happen quickly because there are pimps present—but those repeated, quick, and kind interactions give victims someone to reach out to when they’re in crisis, need help or are ready to leave “the life”.
We often receive messages asking “How can I help?”—so we want to leave you with a few tips and opportunities to respond when you see street trafficking:
Keep driving. While it is a good inclination to want to stop and help, it can often put you and the person you’re trying to help in a dangerous situation. It takes an understanding of the dynamics of the sex trade, the effects of trauma, and the “rules” of street trafficking, in particular, to be able to create a safe-for-you and safe-for-them situation.
Volunteer. If you feel a calling to be on the streets, reaching out to these women, join us. We will train you! Not only are there opportunities on our Street Outreach Team, but there are opportunities throughout REST, in direct service roles, as well as administrative positions. We serve all genders and welcome volunteers of all genders.
Give. Help fund our Street Outreach Team—by giving, you’re enabling us to meet men and women being exploited in the sex trade where they’re at and invite them to begin to dream about a future outside of the sex trade. Make gift bags. The REST Street Outreach Team heads out each weekend with small gift bags to give to the individuals they come into contact with. You can create these on your own, or invite a group of your friends or coworkers to make them with you—it’s a perfect “giving back” activity for a corporate team.
Pray. As you drive Aurora, pray for the individuals you see selling sex, as well as the pimps and traffickers, and buyers you see. They all need freedom, safety, and hope in different ways. If you see our team in red jackets out there, pray for them, too.
We, as always, are committed to meeting sexually exploited individuals where they’re at and continuing to let them know that they deserve to be loved.