Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

How Does Living in Liberty Help Combat Human Trafficking?

Dec 30, 2015 11:14AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
Although it may seem hard to believe, human trafficking is happening here in western Pennsylvania. On a global scale, human trafficking is a $32 billion dollar industry akin to modern day slavery, in which a victim is forced into a life of sex, drugs or other criminal activity.

Elizabeth Echevarria is the founder of Living in Liberty, an organization that provides a safe haven for young women who are exiting a life of sex trafficking. Women live at a home in an undisclosed location, where they are given the skills and means to transition into a normal life.

North Hills Monthly Magazine: What is the definition of human trafficking?
Elizabeth Echevarria: Human trafficking means sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and a myriad of other things, like organ sales and child soldiers. It has to include force, fraud and coercion, though if the person is under 18, that standard does not have to exist. Living in Liberty focuses on the survivors of sex trafficking.

NHM: How many people are victims of human trafficking?
Echevarria: Statistics are hard to gather because it’s such an underground thing. But it is estimated that 100,000 youth are caught up in it; and that between 200,000 and 300,000 people are at risk for being trafficked nationally. Worldwide, it’s an even bigger statistic.

NHM: At what age do girls normally get recruited?
Echevarria: The ages of 12 to 14 are the most vulnerable ages because girls are still very naïve, but they are recruited up through college age.

NHM: Who is most vulnerable to becoming a victim? And how do traffickers find the girls?
Echevarria: Girls who are economically disadvantaged, in foster care, or runaways are most vulnerable; usually a runaway will get approached within 48 hours. These people go where they know young girls go—the mall, recreation centers, anywhere where young people hang out. The Internet is another way.

NHM: What motivated you to start Living in Liberty in 2012?
Echevarria: I became interested in the issue about 11 years ago when we lived in the D.C. metro area. I was a women’s ministry leader in our church, and I was looking for a retreat speaker without much success. Then someone shared a story about a ministry in India where they helped children out of brothels. Children are often in the rooms where their mothers are providing services, so this organization came in and provided childcare, so that the children didn’t have to be exposed to what was going on. Through this, they were able to reach out to the women if they wanted to get out.

I thought about moving to India but my husband was not on board, so then I really started looking around, realized that it was happening here in the United States, and learned more about it.

NHM: Why Pittsburgh?
Echevarria: My husband got relocated to Pittsburgh, and I realized that there were not really any aftercare services for victims of trafficking here, specifically for sex trafficking. I found a property that I thought would work well as a safe home, so I purchased it; that was the springboard. We also plan to acquire other homes to expand our services.

NHM: What is the mission of Living in Liberty?
Echevarria: The main focus is to help women transition out of the sex trafficking life so that they can sustain themselves. If they started between the ages of 12 and 14, it is likely that they haven’t finished school; they don’t really have any skill sets. They don’t feel like they can do anything else because it’s all that they know. It’s also pretty lucrative and they’re used to the excitement of the life. Even though there are bad things, it takes them awhile to exit.

NHM: Once the women are safe at the house, how do you help them transition?
Echevarria: We have a one year to 18-month program. We house up to four women, over the age of 18, which is intentionally small. We help them with counseling, health care, medical, life skills and job skills. In the first phase, we meet all of their physical needs, such as getting them clothes, health care, and all of those kinds of things that they haven’t had. We make them feel secure. In the second phase, they start dreaming about what they want to do. For each one, it’s different—some want to finish their GEDs, some want to go to college. And in the third and final phase, we start helping them make that dream a reality. All this time, they are developing life skills to make the transition.

NHM: How is your organization funded?
Echevarria: We run the Repurposed store (at Northway Mall)—it helps fund the work we do and helps raise awareness of the issue. It provides clothing for the women, because they typically have nothing but the clothes on their backs. There’s also a boutique within the store where we sell items from Cambodia, China and India made by trafficking survivors.

NHM: Why is it so important to raise awareness?
Echevarria: The more people who know what is going on, the more opportunities we have to combat it. If you know the red flags, you can possibly identify the victim, and then report it. One of the red flags, an identifier, is someone who doesn’t know where they are, for example. We do outreach at the home, at the store, and then we do awareness prevention by going out and talking at different churches, schools, universities and businesses.

NHM: What should you do if you suspect that someone is a victim of trafficking?
Echevarria: There is a national hotline through the Polaris project, and that number is 1-888-373-7888. There is the Southwestern Human Trafficking Coalition here in Pittsburgh, and I would also call the local FBI, which has a hotline number, and call local law enforcement.