The name of the county’s first human trafficking safe house, “The Monarch,” represents clients’ transformation from abused victim to self-sufficient survivor.
The moniker is also fitting for founder Jaida Im.
Feeling that God had a bigger plan for her after recovering in 2008 from years of debilitating migraine headaches that left her suicidal, Im opted to pass up a return to her pharmacist career and give back. She just wasn’t sure how or where.
She’d always felt compassion toward women and the impoverished but still didn’t have a clear focus until she attended a 2009 human trafficking conference and found her calling. Im also began dreaming of some type of shelter although she didn’t know what it meant. She finally put it together after learning that no place existed to house human trafficking victims outside of jails and juvenile halls. Rape and domestic violence victims had short-term options but not those who had been prostituted or otherwise exploited and often needed services and care beyond what existing shelters provided.
She went home to tell her husband.
“We need to buy a house,” she said.
He was a bit taken aback at first, she conceded, but his deep faith in God and his wife gave him his answer.
“If we don’t do it, who will?” Im recalls him saying.
With little more than their own money, Im’s training from conferences and the desire to help women with few other options, she started the nonprofit Freedom House. In August 2010, Im opened The Monarch at an undisclosed San Mateo County location and just earlier this year the six-bed “The Nest” which serves juvenile girls ages 12 to 17 in Santa Clara County.
Both homes are purposely decorated to resemble a typical residence rather than a shelter or more institution-like setting. Couches. Handmade quilts. Definitely no bunk beds.
“We’re giving them the home they never had,” she said.
At The Monarch, clients receive basic needs like clothing, food and shelter and also the less tangible building blocks to a new life like therapy, life skills and learning that there is more to life — and their worth — than prostituting themselves to make money for someone who oftentimes claims to be a loved one.
One survivor in her mid-20s never had a birthday party. When the house threw her one, she cried and didn’t immediately understand the celebration was for her.
Some clients leave and return to their abuser. One woman did so but after yet another beating at his hands, came back. She said she needed to know if he loved her, Im remembered. Now that woman is a success story.
The stories aren’t all of prostitution. Some human trafficking victims are used as domestic labor. Another stereotype is that victims are female. Boys and bisexual men are also in the mix, Im said.
Clients can stay an average of 18 months, sometimes longer, and leave when they can be independent or reunite with a safe family member.
The Nest aims to provide a similar safety net for juveniles although Im said state certification requirements prove challenging, particularly for those in the county system. Currently, The Nest has five beds set aside for this population but cannot house them because the certification isn’t yet in place. This is particularly hard, she said, because many of the victims get placed in the system after they or their abusers are arrested. Once in, they cannot get out without somewhere else to go.
Im said she’s reached a place, too, where she realizes she can’t save every victim who needs help. There are too many and only one of her. But she is taking care of everybody she can even if among those cases success isn’t 100 percent.
“It’s one life at a time,” she said.
Advocates and officials like Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, who honored Im as District 22’s Woman of the Year, credit the success of Freedom House and in part greater notice of trafficking issues to Im. She credits her success to “a lot of little miracles.”
In person, Im, 52, is passionate about her cause despite claims of actually being an introvert.
“But I know I need to be the voice of the speechless,” she said.
Freedom House receives no federal or state funding so must cover The Monarch’s $450,000 annual budget through donations and fundraisers like the fifth annual gala planned May 17. The gala will include music, a charity auction and a keynote speech by journalist Julian Sher, author of Somebody’s Daughter: The Hidden Story of America’s Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them. The program will also mark the debut of a Monarch graduate who is now an advocate.
The Freedom House Fifth Annual Gala is 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, May 17 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 1221 Chess Drive, Foster City. Tickets are $150 per person or $1,500 per table of 10. For information on Freedom House or to donate, contact FreedomHouseGala@gmail.com. To purchase tickets, visits www.FreedomHouseSF.org/Events.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102