EUGENE — Eugene police estimate that hundreds of people, many of them minors, are pimping or being prostituted on any given night in this college town. A group of Catholics is fed up.
“We want to spread the word that human trafficking is still an issue in our world, in our country and in this neighborhood where we are standing,” said Jerry Ragan, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Eugene and former principal of St. Paul School.
Ragan and 20 other protesters hold anti-trafficking signs at a monthly Sunday afternoon demonstration near the Shoppes at Gateway, a mall near Interstate 5. Malls, and freeways, tend to be places where people come to pay for sex.
Eugene is just a few hours from Portland, one of the nation’s busiest human trafficking hubs when measured per capita.
Home of the University of Oregon, Eugene holds major events like the U.S. Track and Field trials and Ducks football games. That’s when pimps force more prostitutes to come to town, or snare local youths.
“We should say, ‘Not in my neighborhood,’” Ragan said.
Dominican Father Peter Do, pastor of St. Thomas More, held a sign Feb. 5 reading, “End slavery.” Prostitution, the most prevalent form of human trafficking, is being recognized as a modern kind of slavery.
“This is a way to increase awareness and help people see that there is still human trafficking occurring right in their back yard,” Father Do said.
Next to him was parishioner Geni Van Iderstine, a social worker who has seen victims of trafficking struggle. “It tears at their self-esteem and they go on this path, a total downhill,” she said.
One local Catholic on the line had a daughter dragged into prostitution 18 years ago. The traffickers lived in a clean South Eugene neighborhood and were able to entrap a girl from a middle-class, faith-filled Catholic family.
“It can happen to anybody,” said the mother, who explains that her daughter escaped and has regained a faith life but still struggles.
Whenever the mother sees a young girl alone, she inquires after the child’s welfare.
“So often, they are trapped,” she said.
On the protest line last month was Emily Jewett, a senior at Marist High School. She has volunteered at Hope Ranch Ministries, which helps rehabilitate people who’ve been prostituted.
“They are just like me,” Jewett said. “They just were born into a family that didn’t have the love and support that my family gave.” Jewett has joined a club at Marist that raises awareness about trafficking. Modeled after a group at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, it’s called YES, for Youth Ending Slavery.
Lynda Atto, a member of St. Paul Parish, comes “to be part of the solution.”
KelliAnne Stiles joined the demonstration and stayed after to tell her story. Stiles’ daughter was a victim of trafficking and the violence that often accompanies it. The daughter resisted a pimp and was beaten, right in the mall neighborhood.
“Coming here helped me have a voice so people understand how prevalent human trafficking is in this area and how brutal traffickers can be,” Stiles said.