Bay News Rising

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A trafficking victim speaks out

By Cassandra Shoneru ::

Davina Kerrelola was 19 years old when her boyfriend pushed her into sex work in the Bay Area, a nightmare that lasted seven years.

She was forced to have sex with men, and when she showed signs of independence, her abuser beat her unmercifully. When her earnings fell short, she was forced to rob her customers.

“He [her abuser] pretty much killed me,” said Kerrelola. When angered, her abuser beat her unconscious and sometimes forced her to bathe in ice water. “It was seven years of being trafficked by him that came with five or six fractured ribs, staples in my head and bruises all over my body,” she said.

Human trafficking is a global crime that many think is limited to poor countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. But forced sex work is hardly unknown in California.

  • In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 1,118 cases of sex trafficking were reported in California, according to Traffick Jam Live, an organization working to stop sexual abuse of minors.
  • In 2020, Traffick Jam Live reported that half of human trafficking victims identified in cases brought by the federal government were girls under age 18.
  • Although it’s less well known, 29% of trafficking victims are men and boys, according to Stop the Traffic, a 15-year-old anti-trafficking coalition.
  • In California, hot spots for trafficking include San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Groomed for trafficking

It could be easy to assume that Kerrelola came from a broken or abusive home. But she said she grew up in a “normal,” middle-class household in Hayward. Her parents were married and she got along with her brother.

Sex with her abuser was consensual at first, recalled Kerrelola, now 37. But gradually, he persuaded her to have sex with other men. It was a “lifestyle,” she said.  (Her abuser still lives in the Bay Area. Citing privacy and security concerns, Kerrelola declined to name him.)

Kerrelola’s abuser used her insecurities to manipulate her. He complimented areas of her body that she was insecure about. He drove a wedge between her and her family by suggesting that they were jealous of her good looks. His strategy alienated her from relatives.

Her abuser didn’t allow her to work on the street, because he feared that other pimps would snag her. Instead, he sent her to day labor sites around the Bay Area where she would give her phone number to workers and meet them later for sex.

Kerrelola had to earn a certain amount every evening. When she didn’t make her quota, she robbed customers to make up for the shortfall. If a client was intoxicated, she took money from his wallet. “I was trying to make quick money in a situation where you knew that violence was going to come if you didn’t,” she said.

Kerrelola has been arrested for first-degree burglary, check forgery and prostitution. The forgery conviction resulted in 150 days in jail. She has a criminal record, which prevented her from finding a job until she was able to connect with an organization working to prevent human trafficking.

Kerrelola has come a long way in creating an independent life. She is now the workforce development manager at LoveNeverFails, a Haward-based non-profit working to help human trafficking survivors get off of the street.

THE COMMUNITY STEPS UP

It’s nighttime on Capp Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. Young women wearing not much more than underwear and six-inch heels slowly walk the street. Potential customers drive by slowly and are approached by the women if they roll down a window and show some interest. Parked cars with windows tinted to mask the identity of the drivers line the streets. Those are the pimps, there to keep an eye on their “property.”

A woman approaches a car on Capp Street in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo by Cassandra Shoneru/Bay News Rising)

Once a month, the parade of pimps, johns and working girls on Capp Street is observed by a group of church and community volunteers, there to offer support and counseling to the young sex workers – and to the men who prey on them.

The trips are organized by Noah Coombs, a pastor with the Bay Church in San Francisco, and often include volunteers from churches around the state. Coombs and his wife, Rachele Coombs, founded a program called Urban Exchange that initially posted stickers containing the phone number of a trafficking hotline in bathrooms of local businesses.

The group’s work has expanded and now partners with Love Never Fails. The groups run a safe house, staff a hotline and organize the Capp Street expeditions.

Within 30 minutes of calling the hotline, a victim will get a callback from a Love Never Fails volunteer who will arrange transport to a safe house.

Noah Coombs leads the Urban Exchange team and focuses on volunteers’ safety, while Rachele Coombs speaks with women on the street.

The group has been to Capp Street six times this year with more visits in planning.  “We have been going back to the same location and it seems that we’ve gotten more attention because of our consistency, so I think that we’re becoming more effective with our conversations with the girls,” said Noah Coombs.

“Oftentimes we don’t see the aftermath, we don’t get to see if they do make a phone call and we don’t get to see them get support. But we do believe that those moments are opportunities to plant seeds,” he said.

Vanessa Russell started Love Never Fails 11 years ago. She was teaching a dance class when a 15-year-old student came forward and said she had been raped in Hayward and sold throughout California for a year. “We were able to recover her and bring her to a place of safety,” Russell said. “I couldn’t turn away from it.”

Russell’s organization currently houses 12 women, five men, and three girls between ages 13 and 17, including one who is pregnant. It can house up to 200 people at a secure location.

The volunteers who visit Capp Street hand out “You Are Loved” bracelets, with the hotline number hidden on the inside. They walk the streets and approach the girls while they are trolling for johns. 

With pimps crowding the street watching every move the girls make, just talking to a stranger who isn’t a potential customer puts them at risk. “I think they get to a point where they are willing to take that risk because maybe their lives are in jeopardy where they’re at,” said Russell.

Jessica De La Mater volunteers with Urban Exchange. “What sticks with me is how normal some of these girls’ stories are,” she said. It’s hard to understand how girls from loving households wind up on the street, she said. When she first volunteered, La Mater was pregnant with her first daughter and had just quit her job at a North Beach strip club.

The sex scene on Capp Street is in the open. But La Mater, who has participated in several Urban Exchange walks, said she has yet to see any law enforcement activity there. “They [law enforcement] have to know this is happening and you don’t see anybody,” she said, adding that the lack of police action is infuriating. The San Francisco Police Department has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

BREAKING FREE

Kerrelola became pregnant with her abuser’s child about a decade ago. “He thought that would be a forever tie,” but instead parenthood eventually gave her the courage to break free, she said.

The breaking point came when her abuser showed up at her aunt’s house, where her son was staying. He jumped on the hood of her car and smashed the windshield with a gun. Kerrelola then realized that her son’s life was in danger.

She separated from her abuser on Valentine’s Day of 2012, moving out of the house they shared and later filing a restraining order against her abuser. Her life began to change.

“I was in school and I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t give up on my schooling and I wouldn’t give up on my child,” Kerrelola said. She graduated from California State University, East Bay, in 2019.


Her priority now is providing a stable and healthy life for her son and advocating for minorities and trafficking victims.

On her experience as a victim, she said: “I am who I am today because of that.”

She counsels other young women who may find themselves pushed into sex work to realize that a choice to consent to being trafficked is no choice at all. “It’s not a choice when you have no other options of higher value. “Reflect on that.” 

Resources for Victims of Trafficking

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2022 by .
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