A former strip club is being turned on its head in a way as it is transformed into a center to help women who have been sex trafficked or labor trafficked – some of whom could have worked as dancers in the clubs.
Rechristened as the San Diego Freedom Center, the former strip club will serve as a resource center and temporary shelter for women who were caught up in sex trafficking – an estimated $810 million business in the underground economy in San Diego County, second only to drug smuggling.
“We think there’s something significant to taking a space that once sought to dehumanize and attempt to reduce women to commodities to be a place where women are met with hope and resources for healing,” said Kristen Zimmerman, director of Freedom Center.
Filling a void
Demolition of the former strip club began in August, gutting the interior to leave no trace of the building’s past, Zimmerman said. She said the goal is to open Freedom Center at the end of 2022.
Zimmerman asked that the name and location of the former strip club that will become Freedom Center not be disclosed to protect the women who would go there.
Before demolition started, the building was “what you would expect to see when you walk into a strip club,” with walls painted black, a bar, and a stage with ceiling-to-floor poles which dancers used in their acts.
“It will go from being dark and dingy to being full of light and there will be plants and it will really be like a 180-degree (change) on the building,” Zimmerman said. “When you walk in the door, instead of being met with stripper poles, you will be met with a resource service desk.”
Freedom Center will help fill a void, said Kim Berry Jones, director of the Center for Justice & Reconciliation at Point Loma Nazarene University.
“We don’t have any other emergency drop-in shelter in the center of San Diego County. We do have one in North County. It’s really a big gap,” Jones said. “We have some wonderful programs around the region which will take people in who want to get out of the life but we don’t have places to go when they’re just thinking about it.”
Jones said that there are between 5,000 and 8,000 victims of sex trafficking in San Diego County at any given time.
“It’s right under our noses and most of us haven’t been paying attention,” Jones said. “It’s disturbing that that much is going on.”
In a survey of 20 San Diego County high schools, Jones said that evidence of active sex trafficking or grooming girls for sex trafficking was found in every school.
A perfect storm
As portrayed in movies, sex trafficking typically involves girls and young women being snatched and carted away in a van – a rarity in reality, Jones said.
“It’s much more common that someone is exploited by someone they know – either family or someone they are in a relationship,” Jones said. “Physical force is extremely rare.”
Jones said that there’s been an uptick in sex trafficking in San Diego County during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When schools were closed, children left home by themselves often gravitated to online social media, where predators lurk.
San Diego is a hot spot for sex trafficking because the city has a large military presence, is a tourist destination and an active convention center, Jones said, calling it “a perfect storm.”
San Diego’s proximity to Mexico is sometimes cited as a source for women who are sex trafficked, but Jones said “85% of the people we identify are American citizens.”
“What’s really happening here is domestic exploitation by domestic exploiters,” Jones said.
Freedom Center has set a goal of raising $1.5 million to cover the renovation of the building with an additional $500,000 to cover initial operating costs, Zimmerman said.
The Rock Church, which acquired the building after the strip club closed, is helping Freedom Center get up and running and get organized as a 5013-C nonprofit under federal tax codes, Zimmerman said.
As of early September, the city awarded the center a $750,000 grant to help bring the building up to code and Thank You Heroes Home Rebate Program has kicked in $50,000.
“We are blessed to be able to support the launch of Freedom Center and we challenge our colleagues to step up and share some of the wealth form this past busy and successful year,” said Aaron Moore, Thank You Heroes program director.
Thank You Heroes is a real estate agency that offers rebates, services discounts and guarantees to community heroes. The agency defines heroes as active duty military, veterans, law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders, teachers, clergy and healthcare workers.
The program offers rebates of up to 30% for home buyers and sellers and can cover up to 100% of closing costs, Moore said.
“We wanted to create a program that gives back to the community, which is what we’re all about,” said Moore, a former car salesman.
A member of The Rock Church, Moore said his is a faith-based company and contributing to Freedom Center fit in with his beliefs.
He said that he considers Freedom Center “taking some of our territory back.”
“It’s kind of cool to be kind of taking that building and turning it into something so amazing that will help some of these girls that believe they don’t have any other life,” Moore said. “It’s a huge part of my heart, especially for me having a daughter. Mothers have lost their daughters to sex trafficking. I don’t think it’s talked about enough. I don’t think people know what’s going on.”
San Diego Freedom Center
Director: Kristen Zimmerman
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: Nonprofit resource center
Notable: Freedom Center will be the only resource center in central San Diego County for victims of sex trafficking and labor trafficking