Trafficking victims find new haven in Archwood-Denison

Sitting in a temporary office at the new, still under construction Renee Jones Empowerment Center in late August just a few weeks after she moved in, founder and director Renee Jones can barely sit still. The reason she’s so energized? Because the Near West Side Cleveland neighborhood around the building at the corner of Pearl and Archwood roads is a tough one: women trafficked for sex, drug addiction, poverty and crime, mixed in with good families and residents who strive to keep the neighborhood vibrant.

In other words, 3764 West 25th St., Suite #200, is exactly where she wants to be.

“There’s a great need here for the services we offer,” she says. “I observe the same women every day walking up and down the street, so we are right in the area where we can make a big difference and at least offer our services to these people in need that we see on the street.”

The primary services of the Renee Jones Empowerment Center–all of which are free–include counseling and therapy for women who have been rescued from traffickers and are working to recover normal, healthy lives. Jones focuses on empowering these women to take their lives back after being under the control of a pimp on average for five to seven years. These are the fortunate ones. They survived the dark, violent world teeming with rape, drugs given to control and condition, routine beatings, and food or sleep deprivation. Many are murdered or die from drug overdoses or physical abuse and neglect.

According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit committed to fighting modern slavery, human trafficking (both sex and labor trafficking) is a $150 billion industry worldwide, enslaving more than 25 million people in illegal activities through force, fraud or coercion.

Jones has assisted her women clientele unconditionally since she opened her first location, a small storefront on West 65th Street just north of Detroit Avenue in 2002. By 2008, she was so far ahead of the curve in helping fight trafficking that the FBI came to her for guidance on how sex trafficking manifested itself on the streets of Cleveland.

Seventeen years after opening the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, she’s intricately involved in the extensive and elaborate network that has built up throughout the region to combat trafficking and help women recover. That interconnected system involves law enforcement agents, prosecutors, social workers, advocates, volunteers, sexual assault nurse examiners, and doctors. Everyone involved knows Jones, and they are never surprised that she’s put herself at the heart of the thriving sex trafficking industry in Cleveland.

“I’ve talked to her before about West 25th Street as a street track for prostitution,” says Detective John Morgan, who heads the Cuyahoga County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. “There are guys that cruise up and down there all the time looking for prostitutes. So, she’s in a difficult area, but she needs to be in that area, and I hope that more people take advantage of the resources that she can provide them.”





Through a grant from the federal Victims of Crime Act funding disbursed by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, Jones received support for higher rent, enabling her to fulfill a strategic plan goal of finding more space to serve more people. The location offers Jones, her staff and numerous volunteers many advantages. The center is on the second floor of the Brookside Family Center operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic organization of volunteers committed to ending poverty. So, for the women and others who seek help at the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, the first floor houses St. Vincent de Paul’s sizable thrift store and a hunger center.

“This really is a partnership,” Jones says. “They are very excited that we’re here, and they’ve been one of the best parts about moving here, because our missions are the same. So we’ve been discussing different projects we can work on together. We’re like a one-family unit in this building, addressing all of the needs of the person.”

At the grand opening of the new space Sept. 7, St. Vincent de Paul’s board president Ed Leszynski said in his remarks: “Our mission is to help people in need, and the Renee Jones Empowerment Center puts our mission on steroids.” The opening festivities also featured the presentation of proclamations for State Senator Nickie Antonio from Lakewood and from Lindsay Kuhn, regional director from the Cleveland office of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

Previously, the empowerment center operated all of its programs in fewer than 1,000 square feet. Now they have 4,000 square feet in the former dialysis center, so there’s even a room for a medical clinic they will staff with nurses and doctors, probably from nearby MetroHealth Medical Center, with whom they already have an ongoing relationship. There is also a kitchen, meeting rooms, office space for staff, an art therapy room and two restrooms. In the old office, the bathroom was in Jones’ office, so she doesn’t miss that. The center also refers clients with legal needs to the Human Trafficking Law Clinic at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law.

Named for a story in the Bible, her Project Red Cord menu of more than 40 free services and programs includes everything from individual, group, art, spa, equestrian and yoga therapy to resume and employment mentoring to divorce and custody, creditor issues and tax clinics. To more effectively raise awareness about trafficking with children and teens, Jones started a Youth Ambassador Training Academy a couple years ago.

Moreover, the indefatigable Jones oversees a robust series of outreach programs. She and a group of volunteers frequently travel to strip clubs, prisons, and turnpike truck stops to talk with women there who are already working with or are vulnerable to traffickers. They hand out Jones’ trademark gift bags full of toiletries, trinkets, and snacks to show the women they are loved and valuable as well as contact information if they would like to connect with the empowerment center.

In recent years, Jones has implemented regular Project Red Cord Nights Out street outreach programs to neighborhoods where trafficking and poverty intersect. An entire crew of volunteers shows up on a Friday night on Lorain Road at West 78th Street or on Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland with tables packed with free sandwiches or other food, clothing, fresh fruits and vegetables, toiletries, and gift items such as toys, backpacks and sometimes rebuilt bicycles for children. There’s even a table managed by students from CWRU’s School of Medicine who provide free blood pressure screenings and other health information.

This month, Jones will roll out the next Night Out in her new neighborhood on Friday, Sept. 27; Jones hopes to surround her new building with tables offering all kinds of free goods and services for the center's new neighbors in the Archwood-Denison section of the Brooklyn Centre neighborhood. The next day, Jones will hold her annual Traffic Stop Teen Summit: Human Trafficking Prevention & Awareness for Teens, an all-day awareness event at the Breen Center for Performing Arts at St. Ignatius High School.

“In our old location, we had one big room to do everything, so that meant we could only do one thing at a time,” says a still-elated Jones, who personifies altruism and community involvement. “By having this much space, we can have multiple things going on all day long, which means we’ll be able to serve a lot more people.”
 

Read more articles by Christopher Johnston.

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at Cleveland State University. He wrote The Way I Saw It, the memoirs of Marc Wyse, co-founder of Wyse Advertising. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) will be published in February 2018.

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