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Ride along: Outreach director seeks to help homeless youth before they’re victims of human trafficking

Roy Maas Youth Alternative Outreach Director Chuck Paul hopes to bring youth into shelter

For a minimum of 16 hours a week, one man hits the streets of San Antonio, looking for homeless or trafficked youth.

Roy Maas Youth Alternative Outreach Director Chuck Paul checks on them, brings them food, clothes, blankets, and forms relationships with them in hopes of eventually bringing them to the shelter.

The organization has a drop-in center called Centro Seguro as well as two emergency shelters, one specifically for trafficking survivors.

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KSAT was invited to ride along and gain a rare perspective on how delicate and truly complicated these issues are.

It was a Wednesday morning around 10:30 a.m. and Paul is about to make his rounds. Chief Program Officer Dr. Julie Strentzsch joins him.

“We have runaways who usually ran away for a reason. Oftentimes, we think it’s delinquent behavior but often it’s, ‘mom’s got a new boyfriend and boyfriend wants to have sex with you. Mom’s got a drug habit, there’s nothing to eat, you’re taking care of younger siblings,’” Paul explains as he begins driving to the first destination.

“Then you have your throwaways. Throwaways are usually kids that are LGBTQ and with a family that doesn’t believe in that and they’ll tell them if you’re going to be that way you gotta get out,” he said.

All of those situations result in immediate danger.

“It’s going to take less than 48 hours for a trafficker to identify a hungry, tired kid and bring them in,” he said.

Paul said about 40 percent of the people he keeps up with have experienced trafficking.

"We're going to swing through here real quick and see who's here at the Starbucks," Paul says as he pulls in and parks the car.

Paul and Strentzsch head inside, wearing a microphone. They see Lloyd Davis who has been homeless for two and a half years.

Inside, we hear Paul and Davis catch up:

"What's up brother? What's going on? You working today?"

"Tomorrow. We're off today."

"When's the last time you ate?"

"I haven't eaten anything."

"Nothing?"

"Want me to get you something now? What do you want?"

"Anything is fine."

Davis eventually came outside, willing to give an interview.

"I got out of foster care when I was 18, so I've been stuck out here for a while. I live under the bridge over here it's really hard being out here. I do have a job but it's only seasonal," Davis explained.

Davis knows people who are being sex trafficked or have been recently trafficked.

But he said it’s hard, sometimes impossible, to overcome that kind of trauma when a trafficker has control and you have nowhere else to go.

“It’s like a ladder. You get to that middle step and you have these obstacles and it brings you down to that first step," Davis said. "But you gotta look past those obstacles and get to the top.”

When asked, "Are you going to keep trying to get up the ladder?" he immediately smiled and said, "Yes."

He knows it will take major change, but his goal is to have a roof over his head within two years.

Before leaving, as always, Paul lays out the resources available.

Davis already sees a counselor for anxiety and is debating going to Roy Maas for life and wellness counseling.

It may be months before these kids or young adults ask for help, but Paul wants them to know when they're ready, it's there.

The back of his truck is loaded with backpacks, labeled male or female.

"Brand new underwear, a bra, socks, t-shirt, blankets, stuffed animal to remind them they're still a kid. Hygiene items," Paul said, going through the backpack. "The blankets are invaluable. There's one girl in particular I've been looking for I know is sleeping under the bridge right now. I put an extra giant, heavy duty blanket in there in case she doesn't come in."

He also includes notes from volunteers saying loving and encouraging things. It might be the only encouraging thing they've been told.

Paul also will include Whataburger gift cards.

"That burger is one meal, one burger that they didn't have to barter or trade, rob, or steal of have to have sex with somebody to have. It's just a free meal," he said.

The next stop on the ride-along was the San Antonio Public Library to look for more of Paul's "kids" as he calls them.

"It's a clean place and there is a teen library. The staff can stop older adults from hanging around there, meaning the kids can get away from traffickers or other traumatizing adults, if only for a while," Paul said.

Inside, a young couple Paul had been checking on for months, was finally ready for help.

He called Roy Maas staff who immediately came to pick them up and take them to the shelter.

The last stop, a Quick Trip convenience store, which is a "safe place" location.

“Safe Place is set up, if you’re on the streets and you’re 18 and under and you need a safe place to go. You’re running from your trafficker, they go into any Quick Trip, the staff is all trained. YMCA is the same way. ‘I need help.’ They call us and we pick you up and take you to Centro. Every kid who comes through Centro is going to get screened for trafficking. They’re all going to see a counselor. All get an assessment. If they have been trafficked a balloon goes up, we have a system here in Bexar County. We’re one of the three counties that does,” Paul explained.

It's an intricate system designed to show these youth someone cares.

That is something Strentzsch said the public can help with.

"Just say can I help you? Are you okay? Most of them will tell you what they need. And if you personally cant give it to them, there are so many agencies that will help them," she said.

Roy Maas has an emergency shelter called the Bridge, the Meadowland facility where kids can stay more long term until they're 18. Then, there's a brand new shelter, La Puerta, which only houses trafficking survivors.

Paul wants to help the public understand more about trafficking, specifically how traffickers operate.

"If they can't get them from a street youth, they're going to go after foster kids. They'll sit up here at the library and recruit kids. They'll go to the bus station and recruit kids. They'll sit at the computer and recruit the kids that are in my house, in your house. It can happen to anybody. I've seen adult women fall for it, I've seen adult men fall for it," he said. "They do the same thing. They're going to talk online for weeks and months. You think they're your girlfriend or boyfriend. Once they get them to meet up face to face, either they're going to run away with them. No one stays for free after a couple days. 'Hey you're going to start delivering packages for me.' Until the third time you deliver a package, you are the package and now you're being sold."

He said there are red flags to look out for and he hopes the public will alert experts if they suspect something is wrong.

Roy Maas staff is available to help at (210) 340-8077 and through email info@rmya.org.

More important contact information available 24/7:

In an Emergency Call – 911

National Runaway Hotline Call –1-800-RUNAWAY & www.1800runaway.org

Rape Crisis Center – 210-349-7273

San Antonio Police Non-Emergency Number – 210-207-7273

Suicide Prevention Hotline/Crisis Line – 210-223-7233 (SAFE) or 800-316-9241

Texas Child Abuse Hotline – 800-252-5400

United Way Community Services – Dial 211


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