After a winter storm caused icy road conditions and a mass power outage in Texas, a partnership between a group of car enthusiasts and a Fort Worth youth shelter was formed.
The organization helps human trafficking victims and opened the first center catering to youth up to the age of 22 in Tarrant County in October. The center, called the Underground, is located inside One Safe Place in Fort Worth.
Chris Cage, the director of the Underground, said the organization chose to keep the 24-hour center open during the storm in order to stay true to its mission.
“You never know when somebody is going to be displaced,” Cage said. “We want to be there for them.”
This decision left the seven-member Underground team to wonder how they would manage to stay open when there were icy conditions on the roads.
Robert Till, president of the North Texas Jeep Club, said when he heard the news about the winter storm he knew something must be done to help first responders and medical community. His experience as a leader of a company in the personal injury legal field made him aware that safe transportation was a necessity.
“It just spiraled instantly,” Till said of the countless rides requests the club received.
An employee heard about the North Texas Jeep Club’s efforts and a partnership was formed between the two groups.
Child trafficking in Texas
The U.S. Department of Justice defines human trafficking as a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services or commercial sex. Trafficking can be induced by force, fraud or coercion.
According to a 2016 report by the Statewide Human Trafficking Mapping Project of Texas, there were an estimated 313,000 sex and labor trafficking victims in the state. Out of the total, 79,000 were minors and youth victims of sex trafficking.
The report stated data from 2013-2015 showed the Dallas-Fort Worth area had the second highest percentage, 23.6%, in Texas for tips to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
In May, a Dallas woman was convicted by a federal jury for her role in a child sex trafficking conspiracy. According to court records, she and a Lubbock man worked to recruit and coerce a minor into engaging in commercial sex acts and transporting her from Texas to New Mexico and Nevada.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 6 of the more than 26,500 cases of missing children reported to the agency in 2020 who ran away are most likely victims of child sex trafficking.
The Statewide Human Trafficking Mapping Project of Texas stated in its report children who may be at-risk for child sex trafficking include those who are in foster care, are experiencing abuse or homelessness.
Since opening on Oct. 30, the Underground has served over 100 youth and young adults.
The drop-in center provides a safe place for youth and young adults to relax. It doesn’t require clients to give an advance notice before arriving. This allows someone who may have a narrow opportunity to leave their situation to seek help immediately.
Cage said some adult survivors have told Unbound if a center like the Underground existed when they were children, perhaps their lives could have been different.
A counselor is on staff to help youth and the organization has a support dog, Wilbur the goldendoodle.
“We’re good at listening and not judging at all,” Cage said. “We meet them where they are and we see every person as valuable, with infinite value.”
When walking into the center, youth find a kitchen with food, showers, beds, games, art supplies and TVs set to the Disney Channel. Cage said many clients had a lot of their childhood taken away from them and the center allows them to be kids.
North Texas Jeep Club lends a hand
The North Texas Jeep Club has more than 25,000 members. The group has raised money and supported first responders and their families in the past.
Once the decision was made to help during the winter storm, the group created a team of drivers and schedulers. It received calls from hospitals, nursing homes and first responders. Radio stations and news outlets reported on the transportation offer.
Till said the group received over 800 phone calls within the first two hours of its work. Other clubs joined in to help. Members donated food, gasoline for generators and other supplies for those in need.
“That type of act of kindness, there were a ton of those stories,” Till said.
He said members refused receiving tips for their service.
The Underground team immediately started to sign up for rides with the Jeep Club.
Till picked up Cage from his home in Coppell and drove him to Fort Worth. The two discussed Unbound’s work and human trafficking in Texas during the more than 45-minute ride.
“It was an awesome chance of crossing path,” Till said.
Cage said Unbound’s story touched many of the Jeep Club members. Some of the members decided to donate food and water to the center.
Underground was able to serve several young people during the winter storm, including a 19-year-old who was sleeping in his car before arriving at the center.
While youth are staying at the Underground, staff work to find long-term housing placements for them. Cage said the Jeep Club gave a teen a ride to her long-term placement east of Dallas during the storm. The Jeep Club member had experience working with youth who were victimized.
Unbound and the North Texas Jeep Club are considering how they can work together in the future, Cage said.
Unbound North Texas Advocate Hotline: 817-668-6462
Fort Worth Police Department Human Trafficking Unit: 817-392-4533
Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Unit: 817-884-2941
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888