Human trafficking survivor opens transitional house in New York


First published on May 14, 2019 | Natasha Ishak

Shandra Woworuntu speaks at the Mentari House launch. Photo by Natasha Ishak.

Shandra Woworuntu speaks at the Mentari House launch. Photo by Natasha Ishak.

Eighteen years ago, Shandra Woworuntu was living a rough life on the streets. An immigrant from Indonesia, she had escaped her kidnapper after being trafficked in the sex industry in New York. Eventually, her traffickers were prosecuted after the FBI took up her case. But life after her harrowing experience as a sex trafficking victim was not any easier. She was unable to find the help that she needed, and lived homeless for three years.  

Now, as a prominent activist in the fight against human trafficking, Woworuntu is trying to fill the gap in resources that are available to survivors of trafficking so that they can regain agency of their lives and reintegrate into society.

In 2014, Woworuntu founded Mentari, a nonprofit organization committed to empowering survivors of violence and exploitation. The organization offers a range of services for survivors, including career coaching, support groups, workshops, and lectures. Its most successful program is the Mentari culinary arts program, where professional chefs provide training to survivors for potential employment in the food industry. Ninety-three percent of the program’s participants have gone on to secure jobs as culinary professionals. 

Mentari’s most ambitious effort to date is its new transitional house based in Queens, N.Y. Launched in January, the Mentari House is an important new resource for survivors of trafficking in the city.

After getting out of an abusive or exploitative situation, trafficking survivors are often placed in an emergency shelter by the organizations that help them. These shelters are temporary living spaces where survivors are given meals and a place to sleep. However, they often lack the resources needed to prepare survivors to live independently.

Mentari House is not the first transitional home in New York City, but it is the first to provide long-term living space and holistic programming for trafficking survivors — connection to services like financial planning, professional coaching, job assistance, and health care — essential resources that survivors need to rebuild their lives and live independently.

Woworuntu wants to fill the gap between when survivors are living in emergency shelters and when they are able to live independently, a period when former victims are mostly left to figure things out on their own. As a survivor herself, Woworuntu understands how difficult that time can be.

As her trafficking case was being processed, Woworuntu spent time homeless in between shelter stays, often starving because she had no money. At one point she was receiving $25 a month in food vouchers and $150 a month from a victims’ compensation fund. This went on for three years before she was finally able to secure a Social Security ID and other documents to work legally as an immigrant.

“I still say that [survivors who don’t receive proper help] are victims. Because that’s not really surviving,” Woworuntu said of her years being homeless.

Even today, resources that are available for survivors remain limited. Hannah Pennington, assistant commissioner for policy and training at the New York Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV), makes it clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for survivors who are escaping a wide spectrum of violence.

“Within any type of victimization, there is never going to be a universal experience,” Pennington said. “People’s experiences vary based on their other identities: their gender identities, their sexual orientation, their race.”

ENDGBV develops and delivers support programs for survivors of violence and abuse and their families. It also consolidates services at the Family Justice Centers (FJCs), which are one-stop service centers for survivors.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

According to 2016 data from the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency that promotes social justice for labor forces worldwide, there are 24.9 million people worldwide who are trapped in forced labor; 10 million of those people are exploited in the private and public work sector, while 4.8 million people are forced into the sex trade.

An estimated 14,500–17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. Last year, the New York Post reported that the New York Police Department had worked 265 sex trafficking cases in 2017 — double the number of cases from the previous year. The department planned to add 25 officers to its unit that deals with cases of human trafficking, and to open up a special hotline to report sex trafficking cases.

While city agencies and law enforcement have ramped up efforts to combat human trafficking, there are still not enough resources to help survivors of exploitation reintegrate into society post-crisis. And despite increased consolidation of resources that do exist, support for survivors of trafficking especially remains limited, even at offices like the ENDGBV. Pennington noted that long-term housing programs in the domestic violence sector are also scarce, with emergency shelters mostly housing survivors only on a temporary basis.

“Trafficking-specific shelter programs and services is something that’s on everybody’s mind, and that’s something that needs to be enhanced because that’s not something that’s currently squarely part of our domestic violence shelter program,” Pennington said.

A survivor’s ability to move forward is often compounded by other issues, like psychological trauma and immigration status. Woworuntu noted that the Mentari House’s all-encompassing setup is meant to help survivors tackle multiple issues they face, but the program’s primary focus is to educate them on how to be financially independent — a key issue for people trying to get back on their feet. 

Mentari House plans to work with a number of community groups to provide a full array of services. One group that the organization is already partnering with is the New Life Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Queens. The CDC’s Success Groups is a financial stability program that works on reward-based accountability to help individuals set financial goals and stay on track to reach them. Woworuntu has been working with the CDC to tailor the financial program to accommodate the specific needs of survivors, such as using appropriate language during discussions with survivors.

“We have a heart for the community and helping in whatever problem the community has, like human trafficking,” said New Life CDC team member Aya Sevilla, whose husband, Redd Sevilla, heads the community nonprofit. “We want to partner with people like Shandra, who live in the community and help each other.”

To be accepted into the Mentari House program, applicants must maintain a full-time job or be a student. Screening applicants is important, said Woworuntu, in order to ensure that the house tenants are ready to move their lives forward in a positive direction, yet do not have access to the necessary means.

Survivors may live at the Mentari House for two years, at a limited rent, whereas most shelters and transitional homes typically house survivors between three months and a year. The long-term residency is designed to ensure that survivors have enough time and resources to establish themselves financially. Their rent increases as they become more financially independent, which helps them learn how to manage their finances.

Four women survivors coming from diverse backgrounds are already living in the house, where they share household chores. Lisa, who requested that her real name not be used, pays $250 in monthly rent. Originally from Ivory Coast, she was able to escape a relative who brought her to the U.S. and forced her to work without pay for five years. A graduate of the Mentari culinary program, Lisa is both Mentari House tenant and manager, whose job is to keep the house running smoothly. Outside the house, she has a steady job as a dorm chef in Manhattan.

“I feel like I’m home,” Lisa said of the Mentari House. Before living at the Mentari House, she had moved between shelters.

“Here I have my freedom. I can go out and come anytime I want, as long as I tell Shandra. I can eat whatever I want to. I can do anything. I’m good, I feel happy,” Lisa said. She hopes that living at the Mentari House will help her save enough money to open her own business someday. 

“Shandra helps me to be stronger every day,” Lisa said, “to go for my dream and what I want to do for my future.”

This article was first published on Women's Media Center and is published here with permission from the author.

Natasha Ishak is a journalist working in New York City. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Nation, Boston Globe Magazine, Bustle, and The Jakarta Post, among others. You can find more about her published work on her website, or on Twitter @npishak.

Katie Ford