A four-year-long project to open a residential program in St. Louis for women who have been victims of sex trafficking has come to fruition. Magdalene St. Louis held opening ceremonies for the newly renovated home in the city’s Old North neighborhood Saturday.
The first seven women accepted into the two-year program move in on June 8. The house has the space for eleven, and according to Magdalene St. Louis Executive Director Tricia Roland-Hamilton, the program already has 25 women on a waiting list.
“These women have been marginalized for a long, long time,” Roland-Hamilton said. “On average our women were sexually abused by the time they were 7, 8, 9 years old. On average they’ve started using drugs to cope with it between the ages of 11 and 13. And on average they enter lives of prostitution and sex trafficking between the ages of 13 and 15.”
Women accepted into the program are given food, housing, health care, job training, education and life-skills training. The goal of Magdalene St. Louis is to give the women the support they need to become self-sufficient and stay sober.
“The odds have been stacked against them forever. They don’t know a different life,” explained Roland-Hamilton. “So when I talk about life-skills training, typically what we see is that the age at which a woman goes into this lifestyle is the age at which their maturity level ends, and so there’s a lot of work to be done. Certainly anytime you’re talking about people with addictions that’s a challenge in and of itself.”
Magdalene St. Louis is based off a program started in Nashville in 1997. Two graduates of the program spoke at the opening ceremony Saturday: Shelia McClain and Ty Johnson.
McClain enrolled in the Nashville program in 2004 and has visited St. Louis several times over the past four years to help get Magdalene St. Louis off the ground.
“I needed somebody to teach me how to live,” McClain said of Magdalene. “And eleven years later I’ve been to college, I’m a director at another organization. I’m a good wife. I’m raising my children.”
“I’m just (really) excited for the women who are going to come (to Magdalene St. Louis) because we are not our past. We cannot allow our past to define our future. We can be anything that we choose to be. We can do anything.” McClain added.
Ty Johnson graduated from Magdalene in Nashville on Friday. She describes herself as a survivor and said Magdalene gave her her life back.
“I was homeless for eight years, but I now have my own place. I’m raising my son,” Johnson said. “I’m so grateful for the (Magdalene) community. It’s the community that healed me.”
Politicians, officials and Magdalene St. Louis board members also spoke during the ceremony.
Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., whose ward includes part of Old North, spoke of the renovated Magdalene House as part of the neighborhood’s revitalization.
“I remember when you used to come through here (and) by God we’d step on the gas and speed because it looked like you’d get hoodwinked and hijacked at every corner. But look at it now,” Bosley said, praising Mayor Francis Slay for signing bills that gave Old North block grant money.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson pledged his support to ending sex trafficking.
“We’ve dedicated officers and unfortunately have become experts in human trafficking to try and stop that cycle,” Dotson said. “You have my commitment that we’re going to continue to interrupt the cycle of abuse that happens to women.”
Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, is also the board president for Magdalene St. Louis. At the opening ceremony he noted the oft-repeated description of prostitution as the oldest profession before taking a step back and pointing out that something else had to come first: people willing to take advantage of others.
“This entire community has come together and said we are done being one of the top 20 cities for sex trafficking. We are done being a community where it’s okay to buy and sell women,” Kinman said, calling the opening of the house in St. Louis both a long time coming and just the beginning of the program’s efforts.
For more information on human trafficking, see the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.