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How one woman in a La Mesa house is trying to slowly rebuild the self-esteem of women who’ve been sold for sex.
Susan Munsey describes the La Mesa house as normalizing. It’s a five-bedroom, three-bath suburban home near Lake Murray, a garden in the back and a welcoming 11-year-old Labrador.
Despite its plain appearance, though, the house is unlike any other on the block. Munsey cooks, cleans and lives with young women attempting to move on with life after being victims of sex trafficking. Some women come from across the globe, most from the surrounding region.
The shelter opened in March, aiming to fill a local void of long-term facilities specifically designed to meet the needs of sex trafficking victims. The normality of a suburban home is meant to convey a lifestyle of stark contrast to their previous one: stability, security and trust.
The term sex trafficking is another way of describing prostitution. It’s sex in exchange for money, usually brokered through a pimp. Advocates prefer sex trafficking to prostitution to emphasize that the women are victims. Regardless of whether the women consciously chose to perform sex for money, advocates call them victims because they could be coerced through false romanticism or physical abuse.
Advocates say sex trafficking both attracts and deepens serious physical and emotional wounds in women. Some of them are runaways looking for quick money to survive. Others suffered sexual abuse at a young age or from the lack of parenting altogether. Those girls are seeking affection or attention at any cost to their own sense of self esteem.
These are some of the problems Munsey has to work through at home each night. But being with them often, and at home, gives her all the more time to make her mark. To help the women break away from bottling up anger, for example, she challenges them to explain their frustrations when they disagree with her about curfew or another one of the house’s rules.
“We’ve had our struggles, don’t get me wrong,” Munsey said, but added, “I’d much prefer we talk about those things, figure out a solution and move on.”
Munsey said all but one of the girls did not want to be interviewed for this story. One 18-year-old agreed to talk over the phone about her experiences since joining the program. The conversation stayed away from the teen’s history to avoid opening wounds Munsey was trying to heal through therapy.
The teen was born and raised in San Diego and joined the house three months ago. She spoke anonymously for security and sensitivity reasons, a soft voice using short but direct sentences. She was nervous about leaving her past behind, she said, but feels more confident today.
During weekdays, the teen joins others in the program and takes a bus to El Cajon. At a small school run by a church, volunteers help the teens learn reading and mathematics. Most of the girls start at an 8th grade level, aiming for their high school diploma and then higher education.
Since joining the program, the teen said her confidence has been boosted and she’s learning to trust people again. The hardest part was “being able to tell somebody about my life and nothing bad happening.” The best part was choosing a new path for her life.
These days, she visits family more often, goes to the beach and hangs out with other girls at the house. She aspires to be a cosmetologist, she said, because she enjoys the artistic creativity of finding new patterns for nails.
“I can actually do more than I thought,” she said.
Several years ago, Munsey grew a passion for helping victims of sex trafficking. As a therapist and private social worker, she enjoyed working with teen girls and women. She found them more engaging and full of potential for great things. Then, while searching for a new church to attend, she found a group of volunteers planning a ministry focused on sex trafficking.
“I thought I would do a few pro bono hours,” Munsey said, “and ended up running the ministry.”
The group formed a nonprofit called GenerateHope and Munsey became its executive director. Through fundraising, the group collected enough money to rent the five-bedroom house in La Mesa and found donations for furniture and other amenities. It takes about $5,000 a month to pay the bills, Munsey said, and the group is applying for grants to keep a more steady income.
The house is set up like a microcosm of larger shelters in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Each woman has her own bedroom and the general living space is shared. It has strict rules like no drugs, no cell phones and a curfew. But counselors don’t usually live with the girls and most shelters are transitional housing, not long-term.
Munsey also adopted the Labrador from the Humane Society to help around the house.
“It’s animal therapy,” Munsey said. “She had a big family so she loves having all the girls there. One of the girls takes a walk everyday so she’s taken to sleeping on that girl’s shoes.”
The easy part of starting the home, unfortunately, was finding the girls. San Diego is an international hub for sex trafficking. Law enforcement officials call it more of a transit city than a destination city for traffickers, but all the same, street prostitution is pervasive in areas like El Cajon Boulevard.
Most sex trafficking victims housed at area shelters are referred to the programs by law enforcement or advocacy groups. Some girls go to the shelters voluntarily while others are required as a condition of probation or for witness protection. The location of Munsey’s shelter is kept confidential to help keep pimps or other people from the girls’ past from contacting them.
In some cases, police have victims stay in jails rather than shelters so they can’t escape and run back to prostituting along the streets. After just three months of operation, that’s already happened several times with GenerateHope.
“This is a very big change for them,” Munsey said. “With any type of recovery, it can take six or seven times before they change. For some people, it happens.”
The women who’ve stayed at Munsey’s house have been referred by all types of organizations. Church groups with sex trafficking ministries of their own, short-term shelters, attorneys representing the women in court and police.
Lt. Rudy Thai, who leads vice operations for the San Diego police, said the department has started discussions with Munsey about regularly sending victims to GenerateHope for long-term care. The department makes hundreds of prostitution arrests each year.
Before girls are allowed to stay at the house, they meet with Munsey for an assessment. The program is open to women between ages 18 and 35 who are motivated to leave the sex industry. If accepted, they can stay at the house for up to seven years and receive tutoring toward a high school diploma.
Sarah Dyer is the program’s educational director, teaching math and coordinating other volunteers to tutor the girls each week at the El Cajon school.
Dyer found the church group through an internet search during college after reading this New York Times expose on sex trafficking. She e-mailed Munsey about helping local victims and brought her teaching skills to the group. During the day she teaches the girls and at night, she tutors high schoolers aspiring to attend college. She’s taken a break from her own graduate school studies to help guide GenerateHope through its infancy.
Teaching them is the same as any other high school student, Dyer said, except volunteers have to be cognizant of the “psychological and emotional issues that they’re working through.”
At the school, Munsey helps guide the girls to understand their social problems in the same way a teacher explains cause and effect to psychology students. By not learning to cope with stress, a symptom of their traumatic lives, they might end up hurting themselves or others.
Then, after identifying those causes at school, Munsey reinforces those lessons at home when problems happen. To emphasize building social skills, she encourages the girls play board games, eat meals together, watch movies and share chores. These are simple activities on their own, but together, they’re helping rebuild a sense of community and self worth and trust that these women never developed through adolescence.
Munsey said she was surprised when the girls voted to always have dinner together rather than eating separately. It’s normal for teens to be isolative, she said, but that wasn’t the case here.
“These girls were saying they don’t want to go to their rooms. They want to sit down and have dinner as a community,” she said. “They’re hungry for community, maybe to make up for lost time.”