Southpoint Church Director of Operations Charley Short says he and lead pastor Craig Wendel see it on a nearly weekly basis when they arrive at the church for Sunday services. They can glance at a nearby lodging facility and see it happening. Young women are being left with instructions to offer themselves for sex.
“Most Sundays, we can see girls getting dropped off at the hotel across the street,” said Short, the president of a sex-trafficking advocacy group based at the church called 51 South Foundation. Wendel is a co-founder of the foundation.
Short said sex trafficking, selling themselves for sex and money is not a rare occasion, and 51 South Foundation works to expose the issue and educate people to the dangers. They have not sat idly by watching it happen in their neighborhood, but want to alert you to the probability that it is happening in your neighborhood, as well.
“It is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world,” Short explained. “Most people think it’s foreign people who are getting sold, but every girl that we have helped was local.”
The vision for what was to become the 51 South Foundation came about five years ago, Short said, when he and Wendel attended conferences and began to realize the enormity of the problem in DeSoto County.
“I went head first into it, got our 501(c)3 designation and all that stuff,” Short said. “We started doing some advocacy and at the end of the day we decided we were going to house the girls. We did that because there were only 552 beds for sex trafficking victims in the entire United States, which is an astronomically low number for such a large problem. It took a year-and-a-half but we opened the first sex-trafficking rescue home in the state of Mississippi.”
Which was fine for about two years, until the location was compromised and the house had to close.
“Some of the pimps found out where we were, so it was no longer safe for the neighborhood, the girls, or the people who were working for us,” Short explained.
That doesn’t mean the operation was completely shut down.
“We’re a member of the Mid-South Abolition Task Force,” said Short. “We still operate a hotline that, if a girl calls, we will be there within an hour to pick her up and get her somewhere. For the past year, we basically have been working on transporting, getting help for girls, counseling, whatever they need, both mental and physical.”
With no safe house locally for the girls, Short said the main destination for them to recover becomes outside of the area and most likely to a location out of state.
“If we need to get a girl out of here, 90 percent of the time, we go to Birmingham, Alabama and the WellHouse,” said Short. “It’s an organization based out the Church of the Highlands.”
Now, as much as continuing to help women in trouble find a safe place to recover, Short wants DeSoto County to be more aware of the problem and have them see it visually.
“We’re still working through the technical issues of that, but we’re shooting for the first of October,” Short said. “People will be able to watch prostitution taking place in the city of Southaven online. Not the actual act of it, but they will see the girls being dropped off and picked up by their pimps.”
The 51 South Foundation also plans to assist local law enforcement where they can.
“We have some of the best police in the world in Southaven, but no law has been broken that is not visible to them,” explained Short. “Our goal is to become a hand for the police. We don’t want to be cops. We want to be an information giver to law enforcement and with the new direction we are going in we’ll be able to do that in a manner that will allow us to show that this is happening right here, right now.”
The advocacy program takes little money to operate, Short noted, because everyone is a volunteer and with Southpoint Church housing its base of operations, there’s little overhead. The expenses of providing the visuals to raise awareness and that of bringing young women out of danger and on to Alabama or wherever does take money.
The foundation recently got a big boost in that direction with a $10,000 donation from Kristian and Cristina Kelly of the CK Dance Theatre in Olive Branch.
What 51 South Foundation feels it needs to do more than anything right now is to make the public aware that sex trafficking continues happening in DeSoto County.
“People don’t understand the mental trauma a lot of girls have gone through,” Short explained. “You’re forced to sell yourself 18-20 times a day to make money. They don’t have basic skills because they were taken out of their situations at such a young age and we’ve had to teach them things like how to cook dinner. They don’t have an education and they don’t have any job skills. They don’t have any of the things that we learned going up.”
Short has done several presentations about sex trafficking for church and public groups, speaking to kids about internet safety and such. He welcomes more of those opportunities.
“Most people don’t see it because they are not looking,” he said. “Most people are thinking that websites like Backpage (a sex trafficking classified-type website) are now shut down and you can’t order women, which you can.”
Bob Bakken is Managing Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.