The Youth Center of Texas offers a feeling of home to a sex trafficking survivor

At age 20, suffering from depression and recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital with no home to return to, Marie* entered the doors of the Youth Center of Texas in San Antonio for the first time in 2022.

The Center, one of the few of its kind in Texas, offers a residential option for young women, ages 18 to 24, who have survived commercial sex trafficking.

After years of transitory living with various family members, Child Protective Services and a period of homelessness, Marie, who grew up in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, said the transition to the Center felt “hopeful.”

She described the bedroom into which she moved, one of eight in the facility, as nicer than she expected. Inside the Center, the residents each have their own bedroom and share common areas, such as a kitchen, bathrooms and lounge. Their room and board are covered during their stay, and their rooms are close to staff offices and counseling spaces to ensure holistic care.

“The Center actually felt like somewhere I could be comfortable and my privacy was respected,” Marie said. “Being in a place like this gave me the opportunity to explore my options. You have the option to go back to school or get a job.”

Within a week of moving in, Marie had gotten a job at a gas station, followed by another job that paid slightly better. 

She also began trauma-informed mental health counseling to address her experiences of sex trafficking. Adriana McKinnon, President and CEO of Youth Center of Texas, is a licensed professional counselor and said that the majority of women, like Marie, who enter the Center have a mental health diagnosis.

“My counselor and I grew a bond and got close,” said Marie, who described the structure of her weekly sessions as very helpful. “Once you are in the Center and not worrying about yourself physically, the mental side starts taking over. It could be pretty easy to lay in bed and be sad about things. But if you have therapy, you can look forward to that.”

Journeying to the Youth Center of Texas

Marie said her mother gave birth to her at age 14 and never had a chance to start high school. She believes her mother experienced sex trafficking as a child at the hands of her grandmother, whose boyfriends would pay “to watch” her mom.

Growing up Marie noticed, “There were men always coming in and out of the house,” though her mother tried to protect her by never letting her wear revealing clothing or paint her nails red.

“I kind of realized that my mom was doing things for money to provide for us because she didn’t have any other way,” she said.

“I remember my mom telling me, ‘When you’re not educated, men don’t take you seriously. They just want you for your body,’” Marie said. “She would say that’s all she’s good for. The only way that men will even think about paying her rent is if she does something for them. So, I kind of picked up on that.”

When Marie was 12, her mother committed suicide and Marie went to live with extended family members.

“After my mother was gone, the only attention I was really getting was from men” willing to pay her for interactions, said Marie of instances of sex trafficking she experienced before the age of consent. “It was kind of scary situations, even when you don’t want to and things like that.”

By age 16, Marie ended up in a Roy Maas Youth Alternatives drop-in center, which offered a safe space for minors experiencing homelessness, unsafe living conditions or sex trafficking. She was soon referred to Common Thread, another program for victims of trafficking, with which she’s had an advocate ever since. When she subsequently ended up in Texas Child Protective Services, she quickly completed her high school education.

“I’m glad things turned out the way they did because I never would have finished high school if I wasn’t in Child Protective Services,” she said.

As a young adult, Marie continued to experience periods of homelessness. She recalled sleeping on concrete in 28-degree weather, going to the top floor of a hotel and sleeping in a corner until being told to leave, trying to nap in fast food restaurants and having several run-ins with the law during that time.

“Every day was something different,” she said. “You had to figure out every night what you were going to do.”

Healing her inner child through Youth Center of Texas assistance

Now, more than a year after entering the Youth Center of Texas for a six-month stay, Marie recalled a number of the special moments that were part of her healing journey.

“At the holidays, the staff of the Center are, literally, like a second family,” she said. “I don’t have any parents or any family in San Antonio, so they are kind of like having a family — making your own family.”

With aspirations of doing social work or helping the homeless someday, Marie spent last Christmas making rosemary chicken soup from ingredients in the Center’s fridge and passing out cups of soup to those without homes living downtown. Serving others was something she said she was inspired to do by those who have helped her along the way.

“It just feels like, there’s a lot of love here,” said Marie of the Center. “You can tell that the staff members love what they do. They’ll sit down, eat, talk to us. It doesn’t feel like they’re staff, they’re family.”

She also gushed about an exclusive trip to the Rush Fun Park when fellow residents and Center staff members were the only visitors present. After two hours of bouncing on trampolines, zipping down slides and climbing jungle gyms, the group left “sweaty and sore,” and as promised in the venue’s name, with a little bit of a rush.

“It gave me something to look forward to and work toward because most of the time going to stuff like that was really expensive,” Marie said. “It felt like I was healing my inner child a little bit.”

Though she has moved out of the Center’s residential facility and into an apartment, she said she still drops by regularly for day services, finds inspiration in meeting with her case manager and draws on memories, like her day at the fun park, to keep her going.

“The Center is more than a second home, I would say it’s my first home actually,” Marie said. “My apartment is my second home. The Center is even more of a home than my apartment.”

*The survivor chose to remain anonymous and used the name Marie for the purpose of sharing her story.

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