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Human trafficking survivors to find services, home in 52-unit Franklinton development

A view of the downtown Columbus skyline from Franklinton.
Mary Rathke
A view of the downtown Columbus skyline from Franklinton.

Only four other states in the country have more reports of human trafficking than Ohio, according to the Human Trafficking Hotline.

But soon, survivors of the illegal trade in Central Ohio will have a safe place to stay in a housing project that might be the first of its kind.

Several community partners teamed up with the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority to fund a $15.6-million housing complex that will have wrap-around services in Franklinton.

“Ohio is literally ranked fifth among all the states in the country, in regards to the total number of human trafficking cases. We immediately knew that CMHA, as a housing authority, had the means and needed to do something to kind of help this population," said CMHA’s chief operating officer Scott Sharlach.

Sharlach said the site of the build is on the grounds of a hotel that was once part of the local trafficking network. So, they invited some people who were formerly trafficked there to take out some frustration.

“We actually brought a couple of victims, a couple of residents here that were victimized there, and we let them help tear down the building that they were victimized in. So it was very, it was very emotional, we gave him a hard hat and sledgehammer, and they literally help destroy the place," he said.

People who are referred to the housing project will be able to stay there for as long as they need to start a new life. Housing and a lack of support is often one of the biggest barriers to finding a way out of a human trafficking situation, Scharlach said. So, housing tied to income with guaranteed rental assistance could be a lifesaver.

“It's going to be a beacon of hope for these victims who went through a horrific trauma, and just need a little assistance to kind of get back on their feet," Scharlach said.

Those wraparound services that will be offered to people in the program will be tailored to the individual experiences of the residents and connect them to career and educational resources.

“We really built this project to focus on the security, the safe place, and the resident services that will surround them, that will help them get back on their feet and help them get employed or get educated," Scharlach said.

The development's name, Harriet's Hope, is named for Harriet Tubman, the woman who helped free people who were enslaved after she escaped slavery herself.

Scharlach said the project honors the abolitionist and takes a cue from her work.

"(Tubman) used her liberty to making sure that she dedicated her life to freeing other individuals and other people from slavery. So, the project really fits the mold. (Human trafficking) is like modern day slavery that we have right in front of us,” he said.

Developer Beacon 360 is scheduled to start construction on the 52-unit complex next month. The supportive housing community should open in 2024.

Scharlach said Beacon 360's CEO Celia Kendall came to CMHA about three years ago with the idea for the project.

“It’s important to highlight the uniqueness of this type of development,” said Kendall states in a news release. “We’ll be providing a holistic and trauma-informed approach to service delivery, including onsite behavioral, mental, and physical health services in partnership with local providers and peer support groups, to encourage rehabilitation and self-sufficiency."

The exact location of the development isn't being publicized to protect future residents.

Scharlach said he’d like to see other housing authorities develop similar partnerships and models to provide people who were trafficked an out. He thinks this may be the first development of its type.

“It's definitely a project or a conception that could be replicated,” he said.

CMHA is guaranteeing rental assistance through the federal voucher program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help make the project financially viable. Over the 20-year contract, CMHA will provide $6 million to $7 million in rental assistance to support the project. Residents will also contribute a portion of their income.

State lawmakers provided some funding in the state budget and several other organizations did, too — the Affordable Housing Trust of Columbus and Franklin County, the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, the City of Columbus, Park National Bank, Federal Home Loan Bank, the Ohio Capital Impact Corporation and the Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. Fox joined the WOSU newsroom from the Tribune Chronicle/Vindicator in the Youngstown area, where she’d been a reporter since 2014. Contact Renee at renee.fox@wosu.org.