CHICAGO - Local advocates for sex trafficking victims say Chicago ranks near the top for exploitation. In fact, there are so many local victims that Cook County has set up a task force to help survivors escape the abuse.
"Somebody you might pass by on the street as you're walking," said Marci Arneson, Salvation Army volunteer. "Some are young girls that you would not expect, some are mothers."
55 percent of local sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens who have never left the City of Chicago, according to Summer Ghias, who is with the Salvation Army's STOP-IT initiative against human trafficking.
"We've worked with folks as young as 14 and as old as in their 70's," said Ghias.
She says most victims are coerced into the sex trade by people they know and trust.
"I think the common portrayal that is sort of a stereotype potentially, is this kidnapping situation where some stranger is coming into get you, that is actually not the reality of most of the people we serve," said Ghias.
It also wasn't the reality for victims who have come forward claiming they were sexually abused by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. Many of the girls were just steps away from homelessness and extremely vulnerable, according to a Miami Herald investigation.
The Salvation Army STOP-IT program provides survivors with emergency housing, food, clothing and healthcare.
"They feel like ‘wow, I've got someone here who knows something about sex trafficking or human trafficking that can give me some tools to get out of this,'" said Ghias.
Training helps volunteers identify victims, some indicators include an individual who is not speaking on their own behalf, exhibiting signs of fear and anxiety or who is not in control of their money or identification.
"Because of the training I had here, I was in another city and was able to observe something that looked very suspicious," said Arneson. "I was able to call the national hotline and get a case set up which hopefully helped provide some help for those people in that situation."
The number is 877-606-3158. This is the first step for many survivors. The Salvation Army hotline is open 24/7 and can help victims find a safe place to start over.