East Side youth center breaks ground on expansion

New facility will serve sexually exploited girls

180 Degrees has been on the East Side only for a couple of years, but it’s already looking to expand services to a population that needs them badly -- they’re adding shelter for underage girls who’ve been victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

The youth and adult social services organization, based in Minneapolis, opened a youth-oriented facility on the corner of Minnehaha Avenue and Johnson Parkway in 2011. About two years later, on the last week of November, the organization broke ground on a new building which will provide 12 dedicated beds to female victims ages 10-17 who need short-term shelter.

“Right now, for the entire state of Minnesota, there are (four) beds for these types of use,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who attended the groundbreaking. “And the need is much greater than that. So this will be a start.”

180 Degrees has teamed up with Midwest Children’s Resource Center, and Breaking Free, a nonprofit organization that serves women and girls who have been involved in prostitution, to provide services out of the new building.

Freddie Davis-English, chief operating officer of 180 Degrees, said the combining of forces will help serve the largest number of youth in need.

“The key here is everyone working together to recognize the opportunity to create the best service support for the population we’re all concerned about,” she said.

First of its kind

Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, said the shelter is a first of its kind for the state.

“They will be able to provide all that crisis intervention type service that youth need right when they get off the streets,” she said.

While there are homeless shelters for kids, there are none specifically for sex-trafficked kids, Carter noted.

And a lot of homeless runaways are victims of sexual exploitation, sometimes trading sex for food or shelter in order to survive, she said.

Breaking Free currently provides four dedicated beds for young female victims, and are planning to expand, she said. But they’ve got a ways to go to meet demand -- last year, the organization worked with about 100 youths, Carter said, about half of whom needed shelter. The small operation on University Avenue didn’t have room for many of the youths.

So, to see 12 dedicated beds added at 180 Degrees is a significant step, she said.

Davis-English said with the demand for shelter much higher than what’s available, girls are often turning to makeshift housing situations, which “(aren’t) in the best interests of the client.”

The new shelter will provide “a space that will more intentionally service the population in a way that better helps them to heal survivors,” she said.

Identifying a need

Davis-English said that 180 Degrees staff have come into contact with girls who’ve been sexually exploited or trafficked while working with them in other regards. The staff “expressed frustration with not having services (or shelter) for that particular group,” she said.

So, they did something about it and pursued adding a new facility.

The building should be all ready to go by July of 2014, just in time for the state’s new Safe Harbor laws to go into effect. The new regulations ensure that underage individuals who are forced into sex trafficking are treated as victims and are shielded from criminal charges of prostitution.

Choi noted that this victim-centered approach to sex trafficking can help lead to conviction of the traffickers.

Through treatment programs at places like Breaking Free and now 180 Degrees, “(the victims) start recognizing that bad things have happened to them, and share their stories with law enforcement.”

In the sex trafficking ring involving two brothers and their uncles that was uncovered on the East Side this April, victim testimony played a key role in the case.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

Input from survivors

In developing plans for the new center, Freddie Davis-English said 180 Degrees had a focus group of girls who were victims of sex trafficking to weigh in on how to best design it.

As a result, the facility will have a welcoming area for incoming victims. Sometimes in a shelter, new clients get thrust into the population there, she explained.

But with the new facility, girls will “have a place that’s welcoming and comforting, not institutional.”

In addition, incoming victims will be greeted with a welcome basket, and have their own rooms with a picture up on the wall of their own choosing.

These things can make it a little homier, she said.

Two years in the making

Richard Gardell, CEO of 180 Degrees, said the expansion comes as a result of “a concerted planning effort” two years in the making.

The 7,300-square-foot building will cost about $3.3 million, he said, of which the company has currently raised $1.3 million.

That $1.3 million has come from private donors, federal new market tax financing, and St. Paul’s STAR grants and loans program. The STAR program brought the organization a $150,000 loan and a $350,000 grant this year.


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