The coalition of groups fighting human trafficking in Kern County and throughout the San Joaquin Valley gathered in a dirt lot on Brundage Lane Wednesday morning to bless a billboard.
“What happens on Union Ave. doesn’t stay on Union Ave.,” the billboard reads. “Women sold for sex aren’t prostitues, they’re victims.”
Representatives of the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Magdalene Hope, the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, and the Tour Against Trafficking said they hope the billboard will give women who are sold for sex the tools they need to escape their situation.
Bishop David C. Rice of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin performed a blessing on the billboard.
He then talked about the Tour Against Trafficking, a 750 mile bicycle tour of the San Joaquin Valley that starts on Oct. 2 with a leg from Taft to Bakersfield.
The goal is to raise money to support the groups fighting human trafficking and to raise awareness of the issue, Rice said.
The groups are fighting a crime defined by the California Attorney General as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit someone for forced labor or sex.
“Nobody deserves to be trapped in a life of servitude to sexual assault,” said Louis Gill, of the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault.
The timing for Wednesday’s press conference was no accident.
It's Kern County Fair time, said Pastor Doug Bennett of the Magdalene Hope ministry, and the mix of disposable cash and tens of thousands of people traveling Union Avenue attracts the peddlers who traffic human beings for sex.
They come from far away to sell their ”product“ to the people visiting the fair, he said.
That’s why the billboard looms directly over the off-ramp which takes cars from westbound Highway 58 onto Brundage and to Union Avenue.
”Most women will be brought in from Las Vegas,“ Bennett said. ”It’s a trafficking hub.“
The billboard is in the one place where trafficking victims are most likely to read it as they’re transported into town. In massive black letters the sign tells them how to call or text for help to escape their situation.
Text “Help” to “BeFree,” the sign says, or call the national hotline at (888) 373-7888
“They see the numbers, they get help,” Bennett said.
This is the second time the billboard has gone up, he said. The first time the number of local calls to the national hotline jumped by 240 percent over five months.