By Juan Lozano
Officials from more than 10 U.S. cities convened Tuesday in Houston to learn about its successes combatting human trafficking, a broad approach in which the city’s health department, restaurant inspectors and cab companies all help identify potential victims.
While human trafficking has typically been viewed as a law enforcement issue, the city in 2015 also began focusing on it through a non-law enforcement lens. That garnered praise from federal officials and interest from other cities wanting to mimic the strategies.
“It is a different way of doing things,” said Minal Patel Davis, special advisor to the mayor on human trafficking in Houston.
Officials with New York City, Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco are among those attending the two-day meeting this week in Houston, which has long been seen as a hub for human trafficking due to its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border and its diverse and large population.
A 2016 study by the University of Texas at Austin estimates that there are more than 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas. More than 234,000 are victims of labor trafficking, and nearly 79,000 are victims of sex trafficking.
At the time Davis was appointed to her job in 2015, it was the first municipal level position of its kind in the United States. Three cities — Atlanta, Chicago and Minneapolis — have since created similar positions through grant funding.
In Houston, Davis began working with the health department — training its inspectors to watch for signs of labor trafficking at the city’s 13,000 food establishments. Inspectors also handed out outreach cards to workers with the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
The city’s health clinics also included human trafficking awareness as part of its screening processes and a human trafficking case manager was placed at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston.
“City departments touch nearly all aspects of life. They are a great set of eyes and ears,” Davis said.
The city has also reached out to the local business and corporate community to raise awareness about human trafficking.
The parent company of Yellow Cab and Taxi Fiesta agreed to notify its drivers by email and text about possible signs of human trafficking with its customers as traffickers often rely on taxis for transportation.
In 2017, Houston passed a city ordinance that implemented a zero-tolerance policy for human trafficking in city service contracts and purchasing. The ordinance requires contractors that work with the city ensure that their supply chains as well as those of their subcontractors adhere with labor laws.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Sylvester Turner said the success of these various programs in Houston shows the city’s approach is working.
“The reality is, if we are not working to eradicate human trafficking in all cities, in all states and globally, you don’t win,” Turner said.
In October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recognized Houston as a national model for building anti-trafficking infrastructure at the municipal level during a meeting in Washington, D.C. of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
“The city now boasts one of the most comprehensive and forward-leaning anti-trafficking programs anywhere in the United States,” Pompeo said.
Ouleye N. Warnock, a senior human trafficking fellow with the city of Atlanta who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said her office is working to develop partnerships with the private sector to offer job opportunities for trafficking victims.
Warnock said she has also had to work to educate the public that human trafficking is not only about sex trafficking about also about forced labor.
Expanding funding to combat human trafficking is something that is being debated during the current Texas legislative session. Lawmakers are discussing providing an additional $60.8 million to establish an anti-gang and an anti-human trafficking task force, providing the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission $5.6 million to help spot human trafficking at bars and clubs and $500,000 to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to help identify trafficking at salons and spas.