In 2018, Sharon Windham founded United For Human Dignity, a Houston-based nonprofit whose mission is to end human trafficking through education, employment, and emotional support.
“Our mission is to provide sex trafficking survivors with the resources they need to complete their education and create new opportunities for their future,” Windham told JHV.
“Survivors face myriad challenges as they attempt to re-enter society and find sustainable employment. A lack of education, insufficient resources and, for some, an undignified criminal record are difficult obstacles to overcome. These, along with other barriers, can lead to feelings of low self-worth and despair. To survive, some return to sex work,” Windham said.
Sex trafficking robs a person of their dignity, Windham explained. Victims are coerced into commercial sexual acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
“When people come out of ‘life,’ dignity is critical to serving them and meeting their needs,” Windham said.
Before she became involved with UFHD, Windham knew “absolutely nothing” about sex trafficking.
“I was on LinkedIn and saw a post from an anti-trafficking organization that needed someone with a marketing background. I got really curious about the topic. I started going to meetings and educating myself. I noticed that at the time there was a concentration of resources in rescue, recovery and prevention efforts. However, there were scarce resources for victim procurement services.
“I started to ask: what happens to the survivor of the sex trade afterwards? I didn’t see any local organizations helping with the aftercare of the victims.”
Originally, Windham’s model for UFHD was based on a model of Jewish family ministry. JFS provides services that support and transform the lives of individuals, families and communities by empowering them to empower skills, achieve goals and make decisions that change the course of their lives.
Windham places economic empowerment at the heart of helping survivors.
“Job opportunities for most victims of human trafficking are very limited,” Windham said. “Nevertheless, I have found survivors to be very resilient. We have started building relationships with local businesses. Many of these companies are willing to undertake on-the-job training.”
Among the services that UFHD offers are courses in money management. Although commercial sex trafficking brings huge profits to traffickers, victims do not share the proceeds.
“If you are a victim of human trafficking, you have no say over your own money. You have no idea how much your life costs. Basic financial skills, such as B. how to budget, how to save and how to invest can be overwhelming. We start by looking at what is realistic at the moment. The courses we offer in Money Management are part of an ongoing relationship that we build with our clients,” said Windham.
In 2021, Texas legislators passed legislation that turned the felony of buying sex from a Class B misdemeanor into a felony. Targeting demand by tracking buyers and banning the purchase of sex services is seen by some as the best strategy for curbing sex trafficking and prostitution. The results were not strictly evaluated for effectiveness.
Houston Police Department records show that 37% of prostitution arrests were made in Southwest Houston. Almost all of these were on the “Bissonnet Track,” the area along the south side of Bissonnet Street from the Southwest Freeway to the Sam Houston Parkway.
A JHV employee lives in the neighborhood. It drives through the Bissonnet Track almost every day and at different times. Despite the installation of two large signs on Bissonnet Esplanade announcing ‘Inciting prostitution is a crime… cameras are working. Violators will be prosecuted,” he believes that the commercial sex business seems to be booming. This conclusion can be derived from visual counts of scantily clad women on their smartphones walking through Bissonnet.
“Houston is doing a great job finding ways to collectively address this issue,” Windham said. “Our support groups are nationwide because they are virtual. We also offer support groups for male survivors, LGBT people and sex workers.
“As a Jewish woman, I would like to see more Jewish women get involved. Many of the anti-trafficking organizations are of Christian faith. I would like the Jewish community to get more involved. That could come from individuals and corporate partners, whether they have products or services to offer to survivors.
“At the core of Judaism is the idea of valuing life, no matter where you come from. Survivors are more than their experiences. Everyone deserves the chance to improve their quality of life. We offer ongoing support, career coaching, financial management workshops and support groups. All of our programs are informed by our core value: treating others with kindness, respect and human dignity.
Visit www.ufhd.org for more information.