At the age of 24, Jennifer Beagle was trafficked as a sex slave.
Men gained control of her by using violence and drugs, preying on the weaknesses she developed after suffering abuse as a child.
These men called themselves her boyfriend.
“You won’t look at that boyfriend as a pimp, even though he’s beating you up, taking every penny,” she said.
Beagle escaped from her captors 14 years ago, and she now serves Alachua County as the Women’s Director at House of Hope. She maintains 10 beds in a home where women can find haven, and she’s always a text, call or Facebook message away.
Recently, Beagle said the amount of women seeking refuge from human trafficking has increased. The current problem at House of Hope, she said, is the houses.
“We live on the east side of town right now and we can walk right out of our front door, across the street and buy crack,” she said.
Beagle said zoning problems prevented the program from opening a new house, despite private donors offering support. While people often think of cities such as Dallas, Atlanta or Miami when addressing human trafficking, Beagle said it’s prevalent in every town.
“It’s a money-making machine,” she said.
Gainesville resident Tawanda LaKaye Burkett was convicted Jan. 28 of sex trafficking a 15-year-old girl. Hal Bernard Black received a prison sentence of 11 years and 3 months for working with Burkett, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.
Randell Carter, the group’s third accomplice, plead guilty and faces sentencing on Feb. 23 at the United States Courthouse in Gainesville, according to the press release.
In 2015, Florida ranked No. 3 for most calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline. The number of calls rose by more than 1,000 in the last three years, and the majority of calls were a tip about possible human trafficking.
Much like Beagle, other women and men are pushing for more awareness and shelter in Alachua County and Florida.
Richard Tovar, president of Fight Injustice and Global Human Trafficking, is helping his non-profit organization run Justice Week 2016, which ends with a 5k run at Haile Plantation Village Center Feb. 6. The next event is Thursday at First Magnitude Brewery from 6 to 9 p.m. Guests will receive an education in human trafficking, along with discounted drinks, he said.
Tovar said the scope of human trafficking in the county and state is unknown because law enforcement isn’t required to keep a record.
“If it doesn’t come from up top, it’s really hard for the policemen to say ‘Hey, we’re going to keep track of these things,’” he said.
Many trafficking victims are also masked as prostitutes. If a child is prostituted, it’s automatically considered trafficking, he said. However, adults have the burden of proving they were forced, often leaving victims with a criminal record and all the blame.
“A lot of these kids, once they turn 18, they have zero rights, basically,” he said.
Tovar said most data comes from victim service advocates and non-profits, such as Created, which he hopes to join in building a short-term care facility one day.
The University of Florida’s Gators Against Human Trafficking took part in the first event of Justice Week 2016– an effort to mobilize the community against modern day slavery– on Monday. Historian Ana Oliveira-Beuses said Florida is No. 3 in the nation for human trafficking, including cases of forced labor and sex. It’s time to face the problem head on, she said.
“When [residents] think about human trafficking, they think about something far away, happening in Asia and Africa, and they don’t think that it’s actually happening here,” she said.
Oliveira-Beuses said trafficking victims are often watched by someone nearby, so it’s best to call law enforcement and avoid dealing with dangerous criminals.
According to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, victims– which include people of all genders, ages and ethnicities– often can’t travel freely or control their own money and documents.
“When somebody is captured, [the captors] usually do a really nice work of demoralizing the person and breaking everything that she is as a human being,” Oliveira-Beuses said.