Street Talk: Group seeks to stall sex trafficking

A human trafficking workgroup is inviting Grand Rapids residents to join the movement to end sex trafficking in Grand Rapids.

The event, titled “Understanding Sex Trafficking in Grand Rapids,” will take place from 6-8 p.m. Jan. 14 at the KROC Center, 2500 S. Division Ave.

Grand Rapids Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear is leading the effort. She called sex trafficking a “form of modern slavery” that happens when someone is exploited for sex through force, fraud, coercion or when someone younger than 18 is engaged in commercial sex.

During the event, attendees will hear remarks from Lenear and Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne, watch and discuss videos that showcase people involved in or affected by sex trafficking and interact with an expert panel on how this issue impacts children and adults in Grand Rapids.

“We’re asking for the public to attend the event and learn the signs of trafficking,” Lenear said. “You’ll know if an activity is sex trafficking if you see human beings treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited such as by being forced into prostitution. It can happen through social media, online ads, escort services, on the street and at massage parlors, hotels, motels and strip clubs.”

Representatives from partner organizations Wedgwood Christian Services’ Manasseh Project, 17th Circuit Court Family Division, Gerald R. Ford International Airport and Grand Rapids Police Department will serve on the panel.

According to city statistics, an estimated 1,000 or more individuals were victims of online sex trafficking in 2017, age 15 is the average age of entry into commercial sex trade, and runaways are particularly vulnerable.

“Many become emotionally involved with someone who then forces or manipulates them into prostitution,” Payne said. “Others are lured in with false promises of a job, such as modeling or dancing. They may be involved in a trafficking situation for a few days, weeks or years. It only takes one voice to identify the situation. That’s why we encourage people to call 911 immediately if they witness an active trafficking situation.”

This event is free and open to the public as part of National Sex Trafficking Awareness Month.

Civil agreement

Multiple business and philanthropic leaders in Michigan are in support of a new state ballot initiative to expand Michigan's civil rights law to include anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

If the Legislature does not pass the proposal following the submission of a petition of Michigan voters, it will be submitted to Michigan voters for approval in the November election.

Nonpartisan Michigan pollster Richard Czuba conducted a statewide survey of 600 registered voters that shows 77.5% of likely 2020 Michigan general election voters support the legislation, and 66% strongly support. Conversely, 16.5% do not support it.

By a margin of 77% to 17%, voters say they would support a citizen initiative to bypass the Legislature and put the issue to a vote of the people — including 75% of leaning GOP voters and 66% of strong Republican voters.

Leaders who have voiced support include: Jerry Norcia, president and CEO, DTE Energy; Jim Fitterling, CEO, Dow; Patti Poppe, president and CEO, Consumers Energy; Andi Owen, president and CEO, Herman Miller; Ron Bieber, president of Michigan AFL-CIO; Mark Bernstein, president and managing partner, The Sam Bernstein Law Firm; Raymond Smith, former chairman and CEO, Bell Atlantic, now Verizon Communications; Jeff Noel, corporate vice president, Whirlpool Corporation; and dozens of others.

“Business leaders know that to stay competitive, we need to support the people we employ, and that means making clear that there is no place for discrimination in the workplace,” Norcia said. “Today’s top job creators are looking to grow in states and communities that are welcoming to everyone.”

Herman Miller’s Owen said: “This proposal gives everyone the same chance to succeed so that Michigan can be a more attractive, vibrant and thriving place to live, work and raise a family.”

Noel said the Benton Harbor-based manufacturer is one of the majority of Fortune 500 companies that has taken steps to enact policies to prohibit discrimination for LGBTQ employees.

“We strive to create an internal workplace culture that allows and encourages its personnel to bring their full selves to work,” Noel said. “This means an open, supportive and inclusive environment where it is possible for LGBTQ employees to feel welcomed.”

Even Tim Cook, CEO of tech giant Apple, voiced support for the state legislation proposal.

“Discrimination runs contrary to our most basic of American values,” Cook said. “By protecting every person from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, we can help make sure that every person is measured by their talents and creativity and is treated with the dignity and respect that is due to all.”

Health prep

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a program to provide free preexposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, medication to qualified patients in Michigan and across the country.

PrEP is a medication that can prevent HIV from establishing an infection in the body if there is an exposure. When used properly, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99%. Among people who inject drugs, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV by at least 75%, according to MDHHS.

The Ready, Set, PrEP program will increase access to PrEP by removing the cost barrier that many patients face. Qualified patients must lack prescription drug coverage, be tested for HIV with a negative result and have a prescription for PrEP.

“Expanded access to PrEP medication is a key component in bringing us one step closer to ending the HIV epidemic in our state and across the United States,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health for MDHHS. “People in Michigan who are at risk of contracting HIV will greatly benefit from this program.”

In Michigan, more than 16,000 people are living with HIV, and it is estimated 30% of new infections come from individuals who do not know they have HIV. According to HHS, more than 1 million people in the U.S. could benefit from taking PrEP medication, but only a small fraction of those actually get a prescription for the medication due to cost and lack of information about the drug.

Major pharmacies, including CVS Health, Walgreens and Rite Aid have donated their dispensing services for the Ready, Set, PrEP program.

Qualified patients can obtain PrEP medication at thousands of pharmacies nationwide at no cost. In addition to providing the medication, these pharmacies also are providing patient counseling and promoting patient adherence to the medication regimen.

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