Covenant House executive director Bruce Rivers says the demand for services to help victims of trafficking is greater than anticipated. Photo by Michael Swan

Covenant House opens more doors for female victims of trafficking

By 
  • November 13, 2018

Another refuge from the trade in human flesh has opened its doors in Toronto under the umbrella of Covenant House.

A new, safe housing option for girls exiting the sex trade, sexual exploitation and forced marriages has opened in downtown Toronto, filling the gaps in Covenant House’s “urban response model” aimed at girls who have fallen prey to pimps, procurers and abusers. Now 16-to-24-year-old women have an option that falls in between an emergency bed inside Covenant House and the two-year recovery and rehabilitation program at Covenant House’s Rogers Home.

Up to six girls at a time will be able to live independently at the new home, with 24-hour support from Covenant House’s “Youth In Transition” workers, a program directly sponsored by Catholic Charities in Toronto. Typically the young residents of the new house would be there from a few weeks to a few months while they build a plan for their futures. Some of them may go on to the two-year program at The Rogers Home.

Since launching its urban response model almost four years ago, Covenant House now finds itself with an ever-growing list of young women seeking a new life. There are currently 80 clients who are spread between the two, dedicated emergency beds inside the shelter, living independently in some of the 42 Covenant House-leased apartments for its shelter graduates, and living in The Rogers Home.

The program aims to be a wrap-around suite of services, from counselling through education and working-life supports to legal help with prosecuting the men who held them and sold them against their will. Currently, there are 35 cases before the courts in which the victims have been aided by Covenant House staff and programs.

Launched five years ago, the two crisis beds inside the Covenant House shelter on Gerrard Street are now occupied 100 per cent of the time, said Covenant House executive director Bruce Rivers.

“This new program that we’ve opened completes the continuum of options that would be available to young women who are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking,” Rivers said.

The new house will cost about $700,000 a year to operate.

But the Covenant House response to sex trafficking in Toronto goes beyond the services it offers victims. In addition to co-ordinating efforts with Toronto Police, including the 15 dedicated detectives working on human trafficking, and the human trafficking specialists among Ontario crown prosecutors, Covenant House staff have been running seminars for hoteliers, Uber and taxi drivers and others who may unwittingly facilitate the trade.

Covenant House has also made its staff available to schools for talks about luring, Internet safety, self esteem and other issues that create vulnerability for girls and young women. A Covenant House curriculum called “Traffic” is available for schools now.

“As we’ve developed our capacity, we’ve understood that the demands are greater than we had originally anticipated,” Rivers told The Catholic Register. “With that comes continuous demand and growth. Referrals to some of our programs are coming from other jurisdictions, because there aren’t similar resources in those communities – particularly remote communities in Ontario. For safety reasons there could be a need for a young person to come to another place. We’ve had calls from our counterparts in Nova Scotia, other provinces.”

Since the first Toronto conviction under new human trafficking laws in 2014, Covenant House has found itself on the forefront of the anti-trafficking drive. 

“We’re spending a lot more time advancing the issue. As we’ve done that, it has heightened awareness,” Rivers said. “The conversation is changing. So too are the laws. As the laws have changed it has become, I think, a much higher priority across the board.”

Rivers has made a commitment to other social work agencies across the country and to the academic community to share Covenant House’s research into effective action on behalf of victims. Next year the Catholic shelter for homeless youth will launch “Traffic Stop,” an online hub for information about human trafficking in Canada.

Covenant House is raising and spending money on its response to human trafficking as fast as it can, depending largely on private donors who provide 82 cents out of every dollar spent on Covenant House programming. But it’s never enough, Rivers said.

Getting at-risk kids settled and stable depends on housing, which is neither cheap nor plentiful in Toronto.

“It’s not unusual for a young person to be in our emergency shelter for about a month. That clearly stops being emergency in nature,” said Rivers.

(Editor note: A previous version of this story misidentified Bruce Rivers. The Register apologizes for the error.)

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