The rain didn't deter the Union Avenue traffic on a chilly January night.
Cars and trucks trolled up and down the street as women stood on corners under umbrellas. Some were dressed in bright, tight clothing, others looked just like anybody else who might be wandering between downtown bars.
A Yukon packed with eight people cruised the street as well, pulling over so the front passenger in the "hot seat" could offer gift bags filled with tampons, jewelry and CDs, and styrofoam box dinners of spaghetti and salad to the women waiting in the rain. The bags also carried books penned by former strippers and porn stars.
"What's your opening line tonight?" Pastor Doug Bennett, the SUV's driver, asked Jessica Manning, the young woman in the passenger seat.
Twice a month, Bennett leads Manning and other volunteers from the nonprofit ministry Magdalene Hope into the streets. They strive to get their phone number into the hands of as many prostitutes as possible, hoping one day the women will call.
They pray for the women to be safe and to be able to say "No" to a john they have a bad feeling about.
The group has been reaching out to prostitutes since 2009. Bennett and the ministry's profile have been raised again lately following the arrest of a Reno man on suspicion of trafficking a 15-year-old Bakersfield girl to Nevada for prostitution. Local law enforcement said those cases are rare, but may be happening more often than authorities hear about.
"The prostitution is often a component of human trafficking," said Kern County Sheriff's Office Commander Tyson Davis.
Police and volunteers are up against a lot of barriers as they try to spot trafficking victims. Bakersfield Police Department Lt. Jorge Gomez, who supervises the vice unit, said prostitutes may not admit they are victims when they encounter police out of fear for their families' safety or because they have a relationship with their handlers.
"Those cases are often very hard to work because there's intimidation through violence, mental (and) emotional, where (traffickers) scare these women," Davis said.
The Magdalene volunteers have built a rapport with some of the women they see week after week, but Bennett is still disturbed by how many new faces they encounter. Bennett estimated that about half the prostitutes he meets each month, the half being about two dozen, are women the group has never seen before.
"It tells me that (pimps are) bringing them in from other cities and other states because if not, we would have already seen them," he said.
Some of the women who chatted with Bennett and Manning that rainy night last month said they were from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Fresno. Some were friendly and giggled. Others were guarded and somber.
One said she just wanted to go home to her son.
TAKING ON LOCAL TRAFFICKING
Human trafficking, particularly that related to sex work, has also gained a higher profile in Bakersfield in the last year.
A locally financed and produced film about child sex trafficking in Southeast Asia called "Trade of Innocents" premiered in Bakersfield last fall. Last November, California voters approved a measure increasing penalties for those convicted of human trafficking crimes.
And this year, a new group called the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking is putting down roots in the county.
Bennett and his ministry are a part of the young collaborative, comprised of representatives from law enforcement, churches, county agencies and service providers and community activists. Phil Gazley, an anti-human trafficking trainer and advocate who lives in the Tehachapi area, is helping lead the new group.
"(Human trafficking) is not something that's happening on every street corner, but it is enough of an issue in our community for everyone to have it on our radar," Gazley said.
The coalition also plans to combat forced labor, which hasn't attracted as much attention as the sex work.
"I think the sex aspect is so horrendous that that's what everybody focuses on," Davis at the sheriff's department said.
Sgt. Jason Matson, supervisor for the BPD child abuse and sexual assault unit, said other than the January trafficking case and another recent case still under investigation, he couldn't recall any similar situations in the last several years.
Still, law enforcement leaders said, they are conscious of the overlap between human trafficking and prostitution and are learning more about how to handle those situations.
"These woman may be committing the act of prostitution, but they may have no other choice," Davis said. "We're seeing the human trafficking component and realizing that these women are the victims."
Davis provided statistics for the number of people booked into the county jail for soliciting sex in the last several years, but he said the numbers of people caught soliciting sex are much higher than those statistics reveal. For misdemeanor crimes such as prostitution, people can be cited and released without having to go to jail if they have identification, Davis said.
Gomez said the vice unit made more than 800 arrests last year and prostitution arrests accounted for a "big part" of that number. He said that tally was a step up from slightly fewer than 300 arrests made by the unit in 2011.
Vija Turjanis, a licensed therapist and supervisor for one of the Kern County Mental Health Department's children's teams, said people single out "incredibly vulnerable" foster kids at group homes and at the A. Miriam Jamison Children's Center to attempt to lure them into prostitution.
Turjanis said she has seen both boys and girls targeted.
"(The kids are) innocent, they're vulnerable, they're just looking for love," Turjanis said.
Traffickers may seduce the youth, buying them gifts and giving them attention, the therapist said. Some of the children may already have been victims of sexual abuse.
"It's not something they necessarily want to do but it's something that they may be familiar (with)," Turjanis said.
At a recent meeting of the anti-trafficking colation's public awareness committee, conversation turned to organizing a "Human Trafficking 101" class for at-risk young adults and foster kids.
Turjanis said she hopes the classes for boys and girls will help foster youth recognize the dangers they face.
"I'm just hoping to bring some education and some awareness to keep these kids safe," she said.
Participants said they also hope to increase the community's awareness of trafficking both in labor and in the sex industry.
That could mean someone being used by a boyfriend or forced to work without getting paid.
"I think the important thing is to have your eyes open in terms of people around you who might be in vulnerable situations," Gazley said.
Matson, from the police department, advised people to look out for a change in behavior in potential victims such as running away or disappearing more often. They may also withdraw and not be open about what they are doing.
"Try to dig deeper with the person into what's going on," and encourage them to report it to police, he said.
Matson said law enforcement's goal is to create trust with victims and put an end to the crime.
And while the crime may not come to light often, anti-trafficking advocates have no doubt that human trafficking is brewing beneath the surface of the community.
"This is happening in our town. In pretty much every major city worldwide, women are being trafficked, treated like meat and as a sexual object instead of an actual human being," Bennett said.
Magdalene Hope has several criteria for volunteers.
They must be at least 18 years old, born-again Christian and attend a training course before going out with the group.
Volunteers for the nonprofit gather at Valley Bible Fellowship before they head out into the night. Bennett leads a discussion of what the volunteers have been encountering lately, then they pray and worship to a few songs before loading into vehicles.
The group drives up and down Union and by motels where prostitutes work. Bennett said they have also met transvestite and male prostitutes, whom they approach in the same way.
The ministry's strategy has changed over time. Bennett said they started out paying for women's time but switched to offering them gifts in hopes that pimps won't take the goodies.
"If my daughter was out on the street, I would want somebody going out there and encouraging her and talking to her and offering her a way off the street and an opportunity to change her life," Bennett said.
Bennett believes his own experiences have equipped him to reach out to others. He struggled with a methamphetamine addiction and visited prostitutes himself earlier in life.
Bennett said things changed in 2004 when he found Jesus. Now Bennett said his past allows him to have compassion for the people the ministry reaches out to.
"I can spot a john from a mile away, I can spot a prostitute...because I've been there before," he said.
The ministry's goal isn't to get people to quit prostitution, but to show them that they are loved unconditionally, Bennett said. Bennett and other volunteers approach the women without judgment, eager to ask them how they are doing and find out if they want prayer for anything.
"We're non-threatening and we're not pointing fingers and saying, 'Oh you're going to go to hell,'" said Renee Dominguez, a hospice nurse and member of Magdalene Hope.
Though the group doesn't pressure people to abandon prostitution, Bennett said the ministry has helped three women leave sex work in the last six months. He said he and his wife recently drove a young woman who had escaped her pimp to a shelter. The group also offered its first HIV testing at a motel on Union in January.
The group brings in some donations, but Bennett said most of the ministry's money comes from volunteers. He said the ministry has had money committed to it to buy a house to start a recovery program, something he hopes will happen this year.
"I think with the house we'll really be able to do some good," he said.
Two weeks after the outing in late January, on another cold and drizzling Friday evening, Union was quieter. But the volunteers filled two vehicles and managed to hand out fabric roses and boxes of chocolates to a handful of women for Valentine's Day.
One prostitute the group has known for a while agreed to be interviewed by a reporter while she stood on the street. She kept a watchful eye on the traffic as she talked about how she got into prostitution and her day-to-day life. She said she doesn't picture herself living any other way right now.
The woman said she doesn't think prostitution will ever end and Bennett later agreed. But as the volunteers gathered again at the church to debrief, Bennett asked them to think about new ways to reach out to prostitutes and grow their work.
"A couple of the girls in our ministry used to be human trafficking victims and now they're survivors and now they go out with us and they serve on the streets and they go out to try to help these girls get off the streets.
"Hopefully one day maybe (the prostitute who was interviewed) will serve with us on our team," he said as he drove back to the church.