By Beth O’Brien, reporting for Bluebonnet News of Montgomery County
“Can You See Me?” is the name of a statewide campaign featuring a series of billboards that depict scenarios of the most common forms of human trafficking. The billboards will be displayed in public spaces and transportation hubs across more than 70 Texas markets. There are two digital billboards already in Conroe.
It is an effort between the Montgomery County Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the global anti-human trafficking organization called A-21, Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott.
The campaign, which officially launched Thursday night at a press conference at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, urges the public, who suspect human trafficking activity, to call the Polaris National Human Trafficking Hotline and National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.
Bonnie Thiessen is with the group A-21.
“A-21 actually created the Can You See Me Videos, which are actually quite powerful, and it helps identify victims, whether it’s through labor trafficking, sex trafficking, and of course domestic servitude,” Thiessen said. “They just wanted the community to be able to have a way to identify the people that are in danger of human trafficking and also have a way to know how to contact authorities through the hotline or whatever way it may be.”
Lee Vela, president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas, said A-21 has operated this campaign for a long time globally, but this is the first time they are going to be on billboards in Texas.
“With our association, we’re going to be able to reach more than 70 Texas cities with these messages on our digital billboards,” Vela said. “There are things that you do because you have to do them, but there are things you do because it’s the right thing to do, and this is the right thing. Houston, the Houston area and Texas are a hub for this activity, so we decided as our association, and that includes the member companies of Clear Channel Outdoor, Lamar Advertising and Outfront Media, that this is something that we wanted to get behind on a statewide basis.”
Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon said that anytime you’ve got the ability to put a spotlight on a crime, people’s attention kind of goes in and out.
“These billboards can do so much more than you and I can do one day at one time, so the billboards are going to be a constant reminder to the community, and hopefully a constant reminder to the predators as well,” Ligon said. “We are keeping an eye on, number one, if you’re the predators, but also, if you’re a victim. It reminds you that you are valuable and that you do matter. It also tells us as community partners, we kind of need to be better partners for people, share a little of that agape love, right, that love for our fellow man to say, ‘Hey, I need to keep my eye out not only for my friends and family, but perhaps my neighbors as well.’”
If you suspect human trafficking activity, call the Polaris National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.
The campaign will run until next October.
Following the Can You See Me kickoff Thursday night, the Montgomery County Coalition Against Human Trafficking joined close to 35 other organizations in hosting the first Anti-Trafficking Community Event. It was also held at The Woodlands United Methodist Church.
Elevate 61 International was one of the groups at the event.
“We help men who have been enslaved right here in Houston, and so all of our guys have been labor-trafficked, and they’re all foreign nationals,” Aaron Clendenen with Elevate 61 said.”
Clendenen said they’ve helped eight men so far this year.
“We provide transportation, we provide meals.” “We’re in the process of having a shelter, and in the meanwhile we’re paying for rental assistance or extended stay hotels.”
United Against Human Trafficking attended Thursday night’s event.
“We’re a local area non-profit established in 2005, and we focus primarily on raising awareness, educating and doing outreach to fight human trafficking,” Sarah Kroansky with United Against Human Trafficking said. “Some of our programs include frontline trainings, where we train law enforcement, healthcare providers, first responders. We also offer youth programs for middle school and high school aged kids; not just in schools, though, we’re in schools, juvenile detention centers, treatment facilities.”
Members of the group Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) were on hand Thursday night. The group uses nicknames for each other and does not use last names, in order to keep anonymity for their own protection. They have road names for the children as well to protect their identities.
“That’s something that the biker community embraces is a road name, and it’s something funny or something you’ve done or earned; it’s kind of your persona of who you are,” said “Lock” with Bikers Against Child Abuse. “It protects our identity to keep us safe in the event that someone wanted to look and see who we are if they don’t particularly care for what we’re doing in trying to help an abused child.”
Lock said there are 27 chapters of BACA in Texas, and they are in 48 states and 17 countries.
“Sex trafficking is becoming even more of a problem than it ever has been, and we want to see how we can help these children to get their strength back,” Lock said.