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The Woman Who Shelters New York City's Trafficking Victims

Jan 23 2012
Faith Huckel, founder and director of Restore NYC, took her social-work skills and a heap of prayer to launch the city's first and only long-term aftercare shelter for foreign-born trafficking victims.

When award-winning nonprofit leader Faith Huckel moved to New York City in 2003, she expected her time there to shape her career, but she thought that impact would come more from the social work graduate program she was entering than events at the United Nations headquarters nearby.

Then, just weeks into her studies, President George W. Bush addressed the UN, concluding a speech focused on the Middle East with a discussion of human trafficking, which he called a "modern-day form of slavery." Four months later, The New York Times Magazine ran an 8,500-word cover story on sex trafficking in America that launched thousands of shocked conversations.

Speaking to me recently, Huckel recalled the typical reaction to the report: "What? This is happening here? No. Come on. That's crazy." But, for her, she said, curiosity became an "obsession."

During previous social work in Philadelphia, Huckel, 33, had already seen the connection between poverty and commercial sex. "No one wakes up as a little girl one day and says, 'I think I'm going to be a prostitute. That's a great career for myself,' " she said. "Because of poverty, of gender oppression, of life situations and circumstances of being coerced, oftentimes forced, you are then forced into prostitution."

Yet, like many Americans at the time, Huckel was stunned by what she learned about the scale of sex trafficking. "The more and more that I learned, the more broken I became for wanting to do something about this," she said.

A few months later, that led to a conversation over dinner with the two women who would become her co-founders in Restore NYC, a 501©(3) that provides "long-term, holistic aftercare services" for "foreign-born survivors of sex trafficking."

But her new-found knowledge also shaped her master's thesis at Columbia University. "I kept asking the question over and over again from the service provider perspective, 'If there was one thing that New York City needed, what would be that one thing?' " she said. The consistent answer: long-term safe housing and aftercare services.

"It doesn't matter how great law enforcement is, how great your laws are, how great your rate of rescue is," Huckel said. "If you don't have aftercare programs to deal with the women coming out, they're just going to go right back in. "

In the fall of 2007, she and her co-founders held a small fundraiser that brought in $17,000, enough for Huckel to start part-time as Restore's executive director. By 2009, they were able to hire a program director and start helping clients. Then in 2010, thanks to a large, anonymous donation, they were able to open New York City's first safe house of its kind.

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