How Houston is tackling human trafficking with a comprehensive citywide approach

A conversation with Minal Davis, Houston's Special Advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking

The City of Houston is embracing a citywide approach to preventing labor and sex trafficking and improving assistance to all trafficking victims and survivors in its community. In 2015, Minal Davis was appointed Houston’s Special Advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking-the first such appointment in the United States. Now that Pathways to Freedom has launched, Atlanta, Chicago, and Minneapolis will join Houston, as each will have a senior level advisor dedicated to working across city agencies to develop a comprehensive citywide response to human trafficking.

In a recent interview, edited for clarity, Minal shared some key learnings and insightful perspectives from her first two years on the job.

Pathways to Freedom: Your job is unique in part because you are charged with working across city government to address human trafficking. Was it a challenge to get city agencies to take on an issue they hadn’t prioritized previously?

Davis: Not at all, as the motivation and commitment from across the government has been incredible. A few months after I stepped into my position, we held a human trafficking symposium where former Mayor Annise Parker was our keynote speaker, and several trafficking experts, including a human trafficking survivor, provided insights on where and how human trafficking victims and survivors might interact with our city systems. It became clear that there was a role for most city agencies.

The many directors who attended this event left inspired and motivated to act, and quite a few came to me proactively with great ideas. For example, immediately following the symposium, our director of finance approached me with an idea about incorporating anti-trafficking measures into the city’s contract requirements. As a result of that idea, Mayor Turner signed an executive order (EO) to implement a zero-tolerance policy for human trafficking in city service contracts and purchasing.

In another example, our health department is now training food establishment inspectors annually on how to recognize potential trafficking situations. Inspectors are reporting tips to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and keeping discreet records that allow the city to track the number of reports while not exposing inspectors’ suspicions to employers. The City is also now incorporating questions designed to help identify trafficking victims into intake forms for 45 community-based programs like the supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Pathways to Freedom: You’ve been at this for two and a half years. How has your position evolved, and what initiatives stand out?

Davis: We’ve accomplished quite a bit since I took this position. What began as a largely reactive position has evolved into something much more proactive, and pervasive. We continue to see departments addressing trafficking in new and different ways, and we’ve successfully implemented a number of initiatives that have shown tremendous potential for positive impact.

Early in my tenure, for example, we launched Watch for Traffick, a public awareness media campaign that ran in multiple languages on TV, radio, billboards, metro busses, and taxis throughout the city. We introduced Houston residents to the idea that human trafficking is in their midst and advised them to be tuned into the signs when interacting with people in industries such as nail salons, traveling sales, construction, landscaping, restaurants, massage parlors, carnivals, and domestic work. Houston is a driving city, and we fundraised in order to pay for premium spots on radio and billboards. We gauged the success of our campaign on the increased number of calls generated from Houston to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Because we knew construction after Hurricane Harvey could result in increased labor trafficking, we reused the creative from that initial media campaign with tweaked messaging as part of our anti-trafficking disaster response. As we worked (and continue to work) to prevent labor trafficking post-hurricane, we developed a toolkit to share with other cities that contains a variety of resources to read and implement as they fight trafficking in the wake of disaster.

A third initiative that I’m really pleased with is our shelter collaboration. When we did an assessment of the city’s response to human trafficking, we found there is an emergency shelter gap. We are working with case managers and nonprofit agencies that conduct street outreach to ensure trafficking survivors can access emergency shelter. Our partnership allows the agencies to offer a shelter voucher paid for by the City. In addition to that, we’ve hired a psychology fellow who treats patients at the county psychiatric hospital and individuals referred from the shelters.

What’s really exciting about the psychology fellow is that she is helping us identify trafficking victims who were slipping through the cracks. Male victims of labor and sex trafficking are particularly difficult to identify – they often go unnoticed and are reluctant to speak with law enforcement. We’ve found, however, that male survivors will talk to our psychology fellow, and, as a result, we are identifying and serving our first male trafficking survivors.

Pathways to Freedom: What has surprised you most since assuming this role?

Davis: I think I’ve been most amazed by the tremendous potential for municipal government to combat human trafficking. In addition to the creativity and motivation I’ve seen coming from departments across the city, I’ve been impressed with how city resources can be leveraged. For example, the city communications team produced the TV and radio spots as part of our public awareness media campaign, which was a significant and useful contribution.

I’ve also been impressed with contributions private donors have made to fight human trafficking in our city. When private donors and the city are on the same page, great things can happen. For example, while the city communications team produced our TV and radio spots, the creative development behind the entire campaign was donated by Deutser, a local agency, and they also reworked it after Hurricane Harvey. Meanwhile, the Frees Foundation helped pay for the campaign’s placements across the city.

I think this shows that if you start with a commitment by the mayor and dedicate even a very small team to working across city government, there is potential for cities to deliver great results.

Pathways to Freedom: What’s next in Houston?

Davis: We’ve accomplished quite a lot so far and are tracking our impact. We’ve implemented 89 percent of our strategic plan, and we have many programs up and running.

However, as we try and reach even more people, we still need to ensure we have safe spaces for all those who come to us. Traditional homeless shelters aren’t equipped to meet the needs of human trafficking victims, so we’d like to create housing dedicated to trafficking survivors.

We are also starting to use what we’ve learned to educate important stakeholders in our community. For example, we’ve taken lessons learned with labor trafficking in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and are presenting to Corporate Social Responsibility departments about why they need to be concerned about trafficking from a risk management standpoint. And we are also reaching out to consulates to educate them about our EO and asking them to take a closer look at their supply chains. We’ve held a few meetings with corporate executives so far and they’ve gone very well, so we’re eager to expand our outreach.

Right now, I am very excited to soon have colleagues in this work, and I look forward to sharing information and collaborating with the Pathways to Freedom senior fellows in Atlanta, Chicago, and Minneapolis. My hope is that the innovative programs and policies that come out of our cities will inspire many other cities to take a more comprehensive look at how they can prevent labor and sex trafficking and provide better assistance to survivors.

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About Pathways to Freedom

Pathways to Freedom calls on cities to take urgent action to prevent human trafficking and address the unmet needs of survivors. This third challenge of the Partnership for Freedom focuses on challenging assumptions, spurring innovative city-wide responses, and sharing local solutions. Humanity United and the NoVo Foundation lead this final challenge in collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities.

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