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Katarina MacLeod, a former trafficked sex worker who now runs the Rising Angels support service, is pictured in Brampton, Ont. on July 26, 2018.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

In high schools across Brampton and Mississauga, community-awareness posters warn students of the dangers of human trafficking. “Are you the one being controlled by threat, deception, or force?” reads the poster. “Are you being forced to have sex for money? If yes, then you may be a victim of human trafficking.”

The campaign is part of an effort to curb sex trafficking in the region, which has been on the rise since 2007. Statistics Canada reports that Peel − a region west of Toronto comprising Brampton, Mississauga and the town of Caledon − has a higher rate of trafficking incidents per 100,000 people than any other region in Canada. According to Peel Regional Police, 2017 saw the most human-trafficking charges in the region in a decade. Most victims are women under the age of 24, often recruited directly from high schools.

The Peel Regional Council introduced a strategy in June to bolster prevention methods and provide specialized resources for victims and survivors. The pilot project proposes more funding for awareness campaigns, a one-stop “dedicated services hub” that provides victims with access to resources such as legal aid and addiction support and subsidized-housing options for victims.

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Both the Ontario government and the federal government have made similar efforts in the past to curb trafficking in the province, where the GTA alone comprises 62.5% of all trafficking cases in the country.

While Peel’s strategy seeks to improve upon the current resources − such as support groups and shelters − available to victims of the sex trade, critics say there’s a long way to go before the problem truly subsides.

Katarina MacLeod, the founder of a support service for victims called Rising Angels, says there are gaps in the current services provided by the region that she hopes the proposed strategy can address.

A survivor of trafficking herself, Ms. MacLeod says that some of the existing resources are insufficient, and even dangerous for victims.

It was at a support group for women facing domestic abuse in Mississauga where Ms. MacLeod says she was first recruited into the sex trade. The group’s accessibility to the public made it easy for traffickers to prey on attendees, and the spread of drugs made it difficult for victims, many of whom had developed addictions, to get clean.

“Pimps will send in working girls [into the shelters] to recruit other girls," Ms. MacLeod says. "The drugs used in there can be triggering for them, and all kinds of other stuff. It just doesn’t work for them.”

To provide better protection for victims, the strategy seeks to implement specialized housing solely for trafficking victims. Two “safe houses,” in nondescript locations, would offer free accommodations such as food, clothing and basic health care to the survivors for up to two years in an effort to give them time to find permanent housing and employment.

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But while the space will benefit some, it has a limit of up to six occupants at a time. “That’s the only discouraging part for me,” Ms. MacLeod says. “This is a problem concerning over 20,000 women, and we have limited beds available for them.”

Part of the difficulty is funding, Ms. MacLeod says. The region is looking to spend $1.8-million a year over three years on the project, and the collective cost of housing, resources and awareness campaigns makes it difficult to increase housing capacity for more victims.

The current amount may not be enough to sufficiently cover the costs of what’s being proposed, says Alma Arguello, primary director for the Sexual Assault & Violence Intervention Services of Halton region, west of Peel. “While it might seem like a lot of money, I don’t think that’s enough for the co-ordination of services [Peel region] wants.”

Covenant House for homeless youth in Toronto, comparatively, introduced an anti-human trafficking plan in 2016 that applies much of the same proposals, including victim services and transitional housing, but has an annual budget that is $200,000 greater than Peel’s.

The one transitional house that Covenant House runs, the Rogers Homes, costs roughly $650,000 to operate per year, making up 32 per cent of the service’s annual budget. Peel is proposing two houses costing an estimated 1.3 million per year, accounting for 72 per cent of the would-be annual budget.

Even with Covenant House’s budget of $10-million over five years, the group’s anti-human-trafficking manager Julie Neubauer says that more could be done with increased funding.

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“More access to trauma counselling, access to affordable housing, and specialized employment strategies could all be achieved with more,” Ms. Neubauer says.

Regardless of funding, Ms. MacLeod notes that larger facilities might be difficult to establish even if more funding was available.

“You have to be careful,” she cautions. Given that initiatives such as safe houses are a relatively new concept for social workers in Ontario, increasing housing availability could have problems of its own. “If you just opened a big place of 40 beds, and you’ve never run a program like this, you’re going to do a lot more damage than good. These girls are all coming out at different levels of healing, so they can trigger each other. If you run into one girl who knows another girl from another pimp, they could go running.”

If funding is approved, the strategy will begin in 2019, and the region will appeal to the province in the hopes of securing continued funding once the three-year pilot project is completed.

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