It looks like many other two-story houses in this middle class Valrico bedroom community, but it’s purpose is quite different than any other home in the neighborhood.
It’s a safe house for victims of the sex trade, and some neighbors want no part of it. “They may try to steal my car,” Marilynn Madson said. “They may try to steal something from my house to get some money.”
But the people who operate the Sarasota-based advocacy group, Selah Freedom, disagree. “Give me 10, 15 minutes with that group to help them understand,” Elizabeth Fisher said about the safe house for human trafficking victims. “They would be moved to tears with compassion wanting to help.”
Fisher says no more than four sex trafficking victims will occupy the home at any given time for up to two weeks before transitioning to a 12-month recovery program at another location. Fisher insists the point of this home is to give the women peace and quiet and a place to reflect on their future after escaping a life of abuse spent in the sex trade.
“These girls are not going to be out walking dogs and roaming the streets,” Fisher said. “I’d be more worried about the guy down the street drinking too much and getting rowdy.”
Some homeowners in the Valrico neighborhood fear pimps will come looking for their former sex workers, cause trouble and endanger their own sons and daughters in the neighborhood.
Fisher says that’s not the case. “That is so Hollywood,” she said. “No one comes after these girls.”
Maybe so, but Madson questions how the safe house will impact property values by introducing a group home into what is now a family neighborhood. She questions whether Selah Freedom organizers would like living to it. “I would ask each and every one of them if they would want it right next door to them,”Madson said.
“I’m crying because I’m thinking about my own daughter,” said Cindy Epstein, another neighbor who opposes the safe house because she thinks it’s as a threat to kids in the neighborhood. “There is the highest probability that something can backfire.”
Vanessa Morris has never worked in the sex trade but says her mother did. Morris says she escaped a similar fate by going away to live with other relatives to distance herself from her mother’s lifestyle. Now, she spends her life helping women escape the sex trade through Selah Freedom, online at selahfreedom.com.
“Selah Freedom is here to help women who were much like my mother who were forced into things that the never thought they would be forced into or coerced into,” said Morris. “They have nothing to fear about Selah Freedom being there.”
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