Heartland Human Care Services’ anti-trafficking program, Freedom from Trafficking (FFT), partners with Traffick Free, a faith-motivated organization in Chicago that raises awareness about human trafficking in the Chicagoland area. Anytime FFT has a need, Traffick Free sends a call to action to their volunteer network. That is how Lauren and Kourtney Seaman came to volunteer with FFT.
One day, Lauren and Kourtney dropped off donated girls’ clothes that they no longer needed and began a conversation with FFT staff about the program’s work and the needs of survivors – about 75% of whom are undocumented when they begin services. At the time, a barrier many program participants were facing involved accessing culturally appropriate food at the local food pantries. Pantries often also require some form of identification and/or their hours are sporadic, making it difficult for FFT participants to obtain food. Kourtney and Lauren looked at each other and said “We have a storage closet in our building, why don’t we make it a food pantry for your program?” And they did. But their generosity and huge hearts did not stop there.
In January 2014, FFT was working with an undocumented female survivor of labor trafficking from Africa named Mariam. She was staying at a shelter but her allowable time to stay there was ending and she needed somewhere safe to go. After many phone calls to programs across the city, FFT staff sent a desperate email to Traffick Free explaining Mariam’s situation. By that evening, Kourtney had called and offered to let Mariam stay in their spare bedroom. But they could only house Mariam for up to two weeks because Kourtney’s mom was coming to stay with them. Kourtney was pregnant with their second daughter and due in just a few weeks.
When Mariam first arrived, she would stay in her room much of the time but slowly, she began to have meals with Lauren and Kourtney’s family. She then began to cook meals with them from her home country. She spent more of her time in their living room than in her room. She was there when their second daughter was born. Lauren and Kourtney adjusted their home and welcomed both Kourtney’s mom and Mariam to stay.
FFT staff worked hard to identify a transitional housing program that had an opening and could take Mariam, but when they did, they found out there was a catch. She had to be considered “homeless” in order to get housing, meaning that Mariam had to move out of Lauren and Kourtney’s safe and comfortable home and into a homeless shelter in order to qualify for the program.
Once back in the shelter, it took months for the transitional housing program to find Mariam an apartment due to landlords not accepting her without credit and without a social security number. During the time she was waiting for her studio apartment, Mariam spent nearly every day at Lauren and Kourtney’s home because she felt safe and supported there.
Lauren and Kourtney along with their church group, Reach77, remain in Mariam’s life today. She visits them weekly for meals and for their Bible study group. She joins them for holidays. She visited when their third daughter was born. And, with the help of Reach77, Mariam moved into a new apartment with her permanent Housing Choice Voucher through the Chicago Housing Authority — a program that launched in April of 2017 after much advocacy by anti-trafficking programs, the Administration of Children and Families, CHA, and HUD. It was stories like Mariam’s that helped Freedom from Trafficking convince leaders that something had to change within the housing system to ensure survivors like Mariam did not have to be re-traumatized over and over again in order to find a safe place to lay their head at night.
Lauren, Kourtney, and Reach77 have been invaluable allies and partners in this work. They constantly ask “what do you need,” and then quickly respond with “okay, we are on it.” The Freedom from Trafficking program would not be able to carry out the critical services that we provided to survivors without the support and generosity of this group and volunteers like Lauren and Kourtney.