A place to live: Clearing a barrier for former sex workers

A nonprofit’s house “will be a safe place” for former prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims.

EVERETT — Their escape may be behind the front door of a small house in Everett.

By early November, up to three women could be moving into the county’s first residential program for former sex workers.

Peoria Home is a nonprofit organization aimed at helping former prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims rebuild their lives. It now has a home thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. The donor recently purchased a house in Everett to specifically rent to the organization, founder and board chair Paula Newman-Skomski said.

“Housing is the biggest barrier to getting out of sex trafficking and prostitution,” the forensic nurse examiner said. “This will be a safe place.”

It’s estimated that about 200 girls and women are sold for sex every night in Snohomish County. Some 85 percent of them are controlled by pimps, who take their money and use violence to keep them working. Many of the workers were sexually abused as children. One in six runaways is sexually exploited.

There are many obstacles that keep girls and women in the sex trade — addiction, violence and fear, lack of education or job skills to support themselves or nowhere else to go.

Newman-Skomski, who works for the Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse, takes at least one call a month from women around the country who are looking for a safe place to go to escape prostitution.

Peoria Home will give women a place to live, drug and alcohol treatment, trauma counseling, medical and dental care, education and job training. Eventually, the program will include a small business run by the participants to help them learn job skills and also make money to support the program.

Peoria Home is named after the Illinois city where, in 1854, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech attacking slavery.

The organization is asking the public to help them buy furnishings for the house. Peoria Home is registered at Target and Bed, Bath &Beyond. Tickets for the group’s annual dinner and auction in March go on sale Oct. 1. Thistle Farms founder and president Becca Stevens will be the guest speaker.

The two-year residential program here is being modeled after Thistle Farms, a program in Nashville, Tenn., that started in 1997 with one house. It now includes multiple houses that function without live-in staff.

The women also make and sell bath products, candles, papers and teas. The money, along with private donations, is used to help fund the program. About 84 percent of the women who go through the program are clean and sober and employable.

Peoria Home hopes to hire one of the graduates to serve as resident mentor for the first six to eight months in the house in Everett.

Residents will need to be clean and sober for at least 30 days. The program isn’t set up for detox, Newman-Skomski said. If the women aren’t clean, Peoria Home will work with them to find services.

“We also know relapses will happen,” Newman-Skomski said. “We’re prepared for it and we’ll try to work with them to get intensive treatment so they can come back.”

Peoria Home also recently opened a drop-in site in Snohomish County, where women can grab something to eat, rest, or pick up hygiene products. So far no one has stopped by but organizers know it’s going to take time to get the word out and build trust with the women.

The group has been working with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods. The deputies assigned to the office are teamed up with social workers to reach out to the homeless population.

Snohomish County has seen a spike in opioid addiction and homelessness.

“I think with the number of homeless population it leaves people vulnerable to trafficking,” Newman-Skomski said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

Want to help? Donations can be made through the Peoria Home website at www.peoriahome.org or mailed to 509 California St. Everett, WA 98201.

The Fourth Annual Beacon of Hope Dinner and Auction is scheduled for March 3 at the Xfinity Center in Everett. Ticket sales will start Oct. 1 through the group’s website.

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