A federal grant will help a Tracy nonprofit provide shelter to women rebuilding their lives after escaping human trafficking.
The Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime awarded $481,843 to Chest of Hope on Aug. 4 to provide safe housing and services to survivors of human trafficking. Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus in Modesto received $307,012, and nine other California organizations were among the 73 programs nationwide funded by $34 million in grants.
Merlyn Pittman, founder and director of Chest of Hope, said the group will use the grant for transitional housing for women as they go through the recovery process.
“With this grant, we can keep them from six months to two years. But based on what we have planned, we are hoping that in 18 months they will be back on their feet,” Pittman said.
Chest of Hope opened in Tracy in 2011 to provide resources and help to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. The organization established a safe house in 2012 and now offers transitional housing, individual and group counseling, life coaching, and help getting legal intervention services.
Pittman said there’s important work to do here because of Tracy’s location at the convergence of major interstate highways.
“Tracy is the corridor leading to Sacramento, leading to Modesto, leading to Stockton. We’re the corridor for human trafficking,” she said. “Modesto on the 99 is like the freeway to human trafficking going toward L.A. and that sort of thing. We’re excited. We’re up for the challenge.”
The Department of Justice grant comes with some restrictions and a lot of oversight by the federal government.
“Everything we do, we have to let them know ahead of time so they can give us a green light on. Even our brochures that we’re creating has to be screened by them and keeping along the guideline of Homeland Security,” Pittman said. “This is not something that’s going to be taken lightly. This is a big project for us.”
She hopes to buy a house for the transitional housing project, but the grant cannot be used to buy property.
“We are fundraising as well to be able to purchase the property and use the grant money for its intended purpose, which is to furnish the home and that sort of thing,” Pittman said. “This is where we would love for the community to rally around us so we would have that permanent place to house these people and meet their needs.”
Keeping fundraising going during the pandemic has been a challenge. After a temporary closure, Chest of Hope’s Treasure Chest Thrift shop is open again at 126 W. 11th St., and the nonprofit is developing a new fundraiser to replace the annual L.O.V.E. Walk that came to an end in October 2019 after six years.
But the need for shelter for women fleeing domestic violence hasn’t slowed.
“For us, it’s been 100% success rate. The only thing with the work that we do is we don’t have enough housing for everyone, the need is so great,” Pittman said. “It’s a tragedy that’s there’s such a need, but we try to do as much as we can and we’re going at it steadily one day at a time.”
Three transitional homes are open and in use. The first, a five-bedroom home able to house up to 11 women for nine months to a year, opened in June 2019, and it was followed by two more homes by the end of September.
“We have that first house that was started, and we did add our additional two houses for families and it has been going very well,” Pittman said. “Actually, the first family home, we had that family, mom and two kids, move on to their personal home.”
Another Chest of Hope project, The Hope Spot teen center, 450 E. Ninth St., had a grand opening at the end of February but had to close soon after because of the COVID-19 shutdown. Classes will start up again by Zoom in September. Offerings for teens will also include online group therapy and counseling.
The original safe house has been closed, and Chest of Hope is looking to reopen it as soon as possible. The safe house accepted clients by referral only.
“We’re seeing there is a great need for it again,” Pittman said.
Part of the challenge, she said, is keeping safe houses quiet with a low profile to avoid problems in the community because of common misconceptions about such homes.
“We don’t conduct our homes that way,” Pittman said. “There won’t be a disruption.”
For more information about Chest of Hope, visit www.chestofhope.org.