Hidden Atrocities (Part Five): The untold story of human trafficking in North Central Florida

Before spending the last 100 days researching and investigating human trafficking in North Central Florida, I thought it was primarily a big city problem. Before interviewing local survivors, I thought it was probably more prevalent in tourist areas like South Florida and Orlando. Before talking to experts and advocates who combat this issue every day, I thought it was a minor issue in our community.

But after three months of immersion in this subject, I can definitively say that human trafficking is a serious and emerging problem in North Central Florida – and one that all of us should be fighting to eradicate.

I want to thank two people who opened my eyes to human trafficking in our area – Frank Williams and Alison Ungaro. 

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Williams is an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Gainesville who has successfully prosecuted 21 cases in the North Florida District. I scheduled an interview with Frank from 10-11 am one morning in September and wrote 10 questions to ask him, usually about the right amount for 60 minutes. 

I asked my first question – ‘How big an issue is human trafficking here?’ Forty minutes and five pages of notes later, he stopped talking.

I smiled and told him he answered seven of my 10 questions in that response and then asked my second question – ‘What can we do as a community to stop human trafficking?’

Thirty minutes later, at 11:10 am, an associate that works with Frank opened the door to his office and told him that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation were waiting for their 11 am meeting with him. 

“They can wait,” he said.

Our 60-minute meeting went for two hours with FBI agents waiting in the outer office! 

To say Frank is passionate about this subject would be accurate.

Alison Ungaro and the team at Created Gainesville were an invaluable resource throughout the publication of this series. I leaned on her knowledge and understanding of local human trafficking issues. She set up interviews and vouched for me with the survivors you met in part two. Alison also responded to countless emails and texts to clarify and answer questions I had during the writing process, and just like Frank, her passion for this subject is evident.

Because of these two, there are more survivors and less human traffickers in our community.

I’d also like to thank Diana, Felicia, and all of the survivors I talked to or wrote about in part two. Although the names were fictional, their experiences were real, and your resilience in the presence of evil was breathtaking. 

Each of them are profiles in courage. Let their stories be an inspiration in the fight against this unthinkable crime.

In causes this important, it’s best to highlight one big idea and then stay laser-focused until it succeeds. So today, I’m writing directly to the citizens, non-profit organizations, philanthropists, investors, businesses, hospitals, elected officials, and governments of North Central Florida. Human trafficking is a growing and urgent problem in our community that is both underfunded and misunderstood. It deserves a massive outpouring of support. Too many souls are lost to this blight on humanity while we stand by in the belief that it’s somewhere else. 

In comparison, homelessness is an issue that most everyone agrees is serious and deserves support. It’s so severe in some areas that cities, counties, states, non-profits, investors, businesses, hospitals, and philanthropists have spent millions of dollars to end it. Here are just a few examples of the lengths taken to attempt to combat homelessness: 

Charlotte charity buys an 88-room hotel to help house the city’s homeless

A North Carolina charity recently bought an entire hotel with plans to convert it into housing for the homeless, so 88 families in need will have a place to call home. 

Prompted by Pandemic, Some States Buy Hotels for the Homeless

It’s a bold goal in a place with a significant housing crisis: Get as many as 2,000 unsheltered Oregonians into homes this winter by spending $65 million in state money to buy up to 20 underused hotels. 

Investors Buy Old Hotel and Convert It into 139 Mini-Apartments for the Homeless

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), a non-profit organization in Denver, recently decided to make an investment and purchase an $8.4 million former hotel to help alleviate homelessness in the area. The newly renovated building, now called Fusion Studios, has since become a building with 139 mini-apartments for the homeless.

San Diego City Council approves hotel purchases for homeless housing

On Tuesday, San Diego City Council members unanimously approved the purchase of two hotels that within two months could become permanent homes for 400 people now at a temporary shelter at the Convention Center. The Hotel Circle property cost $67 million and the Kearny Mesa property $39.5 million.

Hennepin County to purchase two properties for homeless people

Hennepin County is poised to spend nearly $22 million on six new sites to help the homeless. Several county committees approved the expenditures. The purchase factors include the need to house homeless individuals vulnerable to COVID-19 and the high cost of renting hotel and motel rooms to house them.

Hospitals invest in housing for the homeless to reduce ER visits

Hospitals put $75 million to $100 million into housing projects to limit unnecessary ER visits and reduce wasteful health care spending for the homeless.

Locally, Alachua County has also bought into the idea of investing significantly in ending homelessness. 

Alachua County’s purchase of Budget Inn a step toward ending homelessness

At the Nov. 10th meeting, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) approved the $2.3 million purchase of the 36-room Budget Inn motel located at SW 13th Street in Gainesville with the intent of converting it into a 36-apartment unit facility.

All of this may sound like over-the-top spending at the taxpayer’s expense to some degree, but studies show that in a long term profit-and-loss analysis, this sort of strategy saves money.

“There’s pretty good evidence that it’s cost-effective to provide housing with supports, rather than have these people live on the streets and just cycle in and out of emergency rooms and in-patient stays,” said Sarah Hunter, a researcher at the Santa Monica-based think-tank Rand Corporation. 

A widely cited 2002 study showed that providing housing and supportive services to more than 4,600 mentally ill homeless people in New York City significantly reduced their stays in hospitals, shelters, and correctional facilities. 

These are great examples nationwide of government, non-profits, hospitals, and investors stepping into the gaps of a community’s homeless problem and making a huge difference. It could also be successful in ending sex trafficking in North Central Florida. 

At Created Gainesville, Ungaro’s vision is to build a safe space for trafficking victims to stabilize and heal from their trauma. And while apartments and hotels would not be appropriate for sex trafficking victims, smaller, more private houses would be an excellent fit.  

“The options are few to take the needed pause to breathe, to acclimate to a schedule and routine, to have basic needs cared for while they do the hard work of healing and restoration,” she said. “That’s why we are working tirelessly to open a residential facility for Created Gainesville because there are so many women that I believe could be served in our community if we were to have this safe home where they could live for 12-18 months. From the stabilization phase, all the way to independence.”

The first house she has in mind is a 4-5 bedroom residence in discreet locations, possibly with a suite (for staff). The second home would be twice that size, most likely a building project, with enough land to expand and build-out.

That is the general layout, but what Ungaro pictures goes far beyond bedrooms and square footage. 

“What we’re building is a home that feels like home… full of warmth, comfort, and space for women to push pause, breathe, and gain stability and security. We are looking for a property that allows for enough outdoor space for women to spend time in creation getting fresh air and doing things like gardening, volleyball/badminton, and just spending time together.” 

It’s an opportunity for them to rest and rehabilitate in safety, serenity, and comfort they may not have experienced for a great deal of time. 

“Each woman will have her own bed and a space to make her own,” Ungaro said. “This is huge to have a bed and rest comfortably without fear of who is going to enter her space. This home will be a place for women to journey alongside the support of other women with similar experiences and a knowledgeable, caring, trauma-informed staff team. A place to belong, heal, and develop life-changing relationships and new coping mechanisms.”

Created Gainesville has a detailed plan that includes a one-year, three-year, and 10-year project that would add more units and more campuses throughout the region.

“We’re trying to see the bigger picture,” Ungaro said. “It’s rapport with our community. We want to be sustainable. We want to be wise. But soon, we want to start the larger building project.” 

Like so many non-profits, the global pandemic thwarted their plans a little for 2020, but Ungaro is still ready to move forward. 

“I want to encourage people to partner with us. It can be any amount. It can be $10 a month. Can we do that for the sake of saved lives? I’m going to do something to combat this. Big things can happen when a lot of people come forward and say, ‘I’m in… count me in.’ It makes hope possible.”

Ungaro exudes excitement when discussing the bigger picture and the greater good this project can have once it comes to fruition. But it takes buy-in from the entire community.

“Instead of band aids, what if we did something to stop the cycle? Yes, it’s an investment, but it’s one well spent that will affect generations to come. Because every woman healed impacts the children she has or will have. The legacy she’s able to leave behind for future generations impacts future communities one woman at a time. Every single woman who gets to the other side not only sustains her own life to live safely and healthy, but she inspires other women who are still stuck in that lifestyle who think they are too far gone.”

This is the primary reason that elected officials, philanthropists, businesses, hospitals, and the community should embrace the idea of taking on human trafficking with big ideas, and big prayers. An investment now not only saves current victims of human trafficking, but it also improves the quality of life in the region, and eases the burden placed on law enforcement, government, and healthcare to manage the toll it takes right here in North Central Florida.

“There’s this multiplicity anytime a woman gets to the other side of restoration,” said Ungaro. “It’s not just about her. It’s about our whole community.”

To read part one go here.

To read part two, go here.

To read part three, go here.

To read part four, go here.

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