Human Trafficking: How we are combatting the problem at the City of Houston

When I took office in 2016, Houston was known as a hub for human trafficking because of its proximity to the border, access to major thoroughfares and its international population. Sadly, men, women and children are bought and sold in the United States every day.

I determined to change that. And we did. Houston is now the hub for the prevention and the elimination of labor and sex trafficking.

Houston has paved the way for other U.S. cities in developing and executing a comprehensive, municipal-level trafficking response.

When I announced my administration’s Anti-Human Trafficking Strategic Plan in May 2016, rather than continue to focus on human trafficking as strictly a law enforcement problem, we determined to deal with this horrific issue through innovative ways of recognizing human trafficking, reaching out to victims and providing those victims with the services they need.

The components of our plan are:

  • Adopt new ordinances and departmental policies, where necessary
  • Change public perception
  • Enhance links to social and legal services for victims
  • Implement joint initiatives developed by the Mayor’s anti-trafficking task force
  • Develop a comprehensive municipal model that can be easily implemented elsewhere 

Among the many actions the City took:

—The Health and Human Services Department trained its 1,200 employees to recognize human trafficking, such as during inspections of the city’s 13,000 restaurants. The Department also screens for potential victims who receive city services.

—Also given specific training were Houston police officers and firefighters, as well as drivers for Yellow Cab and Taxi Fiesta.

—I issued Executive Order 1-56 ordering zero tolerance for human trafficking in City service contracts and purchasing.

—The City worked with the Salvation Army on short-term emergency shelter, placing case managers to help trafficking victims.

—We addressed access to psychological services and need to leverage healthcare settings for identification by placing a Human Trafficking Psychology Fellow at Ben Taub Hospital.

—We launched a two-phase Watch for Traffick multi-modal media campaign that leveraged public/private funds to secure prime-time and high-impact ad placements. This campaign generated over 93 million impressions across TV, radio, billboards, METRO buses, and taxis and provided over 28,000 tri-folds, flyers, and stickers to community-based partners for distribution.

In 2016, we held a Conscientious Capitalism panel event and engaged the corporate and consular attendees on how to address supply chain vulnerabilities to trafficking and forced labor. And in March of this year, officials from more than ten cities came to Houston to learn about our successes fighting human trafficking.

This effort would not have been successful without the dedicated work of Minal Patel Davis, my Special Advisor on Human Trafficking. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last fall recognized Houston as a national model for its creation of an anti-trafficking program at the municipal level.

According to Pompeo, Houston, “now boasts one of the most comprehensive and forward-leaning anti-trafficking programs anywhere in the United States.”

And I am proud that Minal was recognized with the prestigious Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons, the highest U.S. award for this issue.

There is more work to do; the problem is certainly not solved but we are making significant progress.

If you need help, you can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or check out the City’s website for local resources: www.humantraffickinghouston.org.

Together, we have established Houston as the anti-trafficking municipal model because of our strategic investment of donor and city resources that have shifted our response landscape and whose impact will be felt at both the institutional and community level.