MIAMI BEACH (CBSMiami) — Valecia Bryant knows the trials of sexual slavery all too well.
“When I was a baby my mother did sell me. She sold me for $500,” Bryant said. “I can remember the first time I was molested at the age of 5 years old.”
Sexual abuse became a part of her daily life.
“It escalated to the point where I felt like that was why I was put on earth to be raped,” she said. “You always felt like you was in chains. That’s how I always looked at my life.”
Valecia says her lifestyle brought her to South Florida years ago and life as a captive prostitute led her to drugs and violence.
“If I don’t perform I would get beat,” she recalled. “So sometimes you have to weigh it out, which is going to be worse? The sex? The rapes or the beatings?”
After a particularly brutal rape, Bryant was referred to the Phoenix Program at Camillus House. It is a secure wing of their facility with 16 beds for victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery. Victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery live in a dorm style set up with bedrooms, a common area, a kitchen and even a list of chores. There are art therapy sessions, places for them to relax and lots of counseling.
And everywhere you look in the facility is the word “love.”
Valecia said the program changed her life.
“Today I’m clean and sober,” she said. “I am free from all sex slavery. All sex slavery. I am not being abused. I am in a very safe place. My life has been saved.”
The program is saving other women too. A woman who asked that we call her “Hope,” shared her story of living on the streets on Miami Beach.
“This past year I came to Florida for vacation, the week before Christmas, and I got robbed,” Hope said.
She found herself in a situation that she couldn’t get out of.
“Men just were using me to keep me safe, I just was passed around,” she said. “It was either that or get raped. I chose to have sex and not fight it.”
Hope, too, found safety and a new path in the Phoenix Program.
“I think every woman who goes through something like this feels like they’re alone,” Hope said. “And that’s the worst place to feel. And they’re not. They’re not alone. You can get help.”
Since 2015, Camillus House has assisted more than 110 victims of human trafficking. They believe they are the only residential program for adult victims of human trafficking in all of South Florida, according to Hilda Fernandez, CEO of Camillus House.
“These are women that had choice taken away from them,” Fernandez said. “What choices did they have? Their choices were taken away from them and the fact that we can provide them a space where they can make new choices and we hope good choices about their future. That’s so empowering.”
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said combatting human trafficking remains one of her top priorities.
“Our law enforcement efforts to combat the savagery of human trafficking are only the first steps in saving damaged lives,” Fernandez’s office said in a statement to CBS4 News. “It takes a strong community partner, like Camillus House’s Project Phoenix, to provide the shelter, the treatment and the support so essential in the recovery process for each of these human trafficking victims who have had so much of their future stolen from them.”
But many women are too scared to speak up. A Miami Beach Police detective has made it her goal to earn the trust of victims, to keep in touch with them and help them emerge from this crisis stronger and independent.
“My goal at the end of the day is hopefully I treated you with enough respect and that you trust me enough to know that if you ever need me again, I’m here,” said the detective, who asked that we not reveal her identity.
Police hope this victim-centered approach begins to break the cycle of human trafficking as victims get the help they need to begin new lives. These victims at Camillus House are ready to be advocates, too.
“I want to help the next victim, the next woman, the next child,” Bryant said. “Any sexual abuse let them know that they’re not alone. That’s what the Phoenix Program teaches me, that I’m not alone.”