When Beth Messick began to learn about human trafficking in 2015, she wondered why women caught in the cycle of prostitution, addiction and homelessness would not seek out organizations created to help them.
Messick took to the streets to find the answer.
“I heard about a woman on the streets in Greenville, (South Carolina),” says Messick, who had worked with women who experienced childhood sexual abuse.
The woman was in a neighborhood near a now-closed elementary school. Messick’s father was principal there for nearly 40 years.
“I told my husband, Ron, ‘I'm going to go find this girl,’” She told him that she would go, with or without him. “He went with me,” Messick says.
“We bought drinks and stood in front of the convenience store and watched,” she says.
They went back again and again on Sunday afternoons and started taking hot dogs. Eventually, Messick found the girl she sought and began to earn the trust of women on the streets.
“We’d give out water bottles and hot dogs and talk to people,” she says. “They called us ‘the hot dog people.’ Sometimes they called us ‘the church people.’”
Messick, a devout Christian, wasn’t there to preach, but she did have an agenda.
“I assumed that they did not know about Safe Harbor and Shepherd's Gate” and other resources for women in desperate situations, she says. “I thought I was going to put them in my car and take them.”
She met drug dealers and men paying women for sex, but none of the women wanted to leave.
“The ladies would be talking to me, and they’d say, ‘I'll be back in a minute.’ They’d jump in a car with a random stranger and come back 15 minutes later, stuffing money in their bra, and continue the conversation like nothing happened,” Messick says. “I looked at my husband and asked, ‘What’s going on here, and why isn’t someone arresting these people?’”
Messick gained insights: “These were multiple women with one story – a story of childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, poverty and trauma.”
She says she understands why the women wouldn’t leave the streets.
“No one in their world has ever done what they said they would do. They have broken family relationships, no resources, no money. They've been exploited their whole lives – whether it's childhood sexual abuse or a pimp exploiting their weaknesses. They were frozen in their circumstances,” says Messick, who graduated from Furman University with a degree in psychology.
Though the men weren't being arrested, according to Messick,the women were.
“They were either coming from or going to the Greenville County Detention Center. It was an endless cycle of homelessness, prostitution, drug addiction and incarceration,” says Messick, who visited women in jail. “They would get out of the jail, roll down the hill to the gas station, call the dope dealer and be back on the street.”
Court-ordered drug rehabilitation rarely helped. “If these ladies didn't have a safe place to stay when they got out of rehab and a legitimate way to make an income, the cycle would continue,” Messick says.
She realized something that would shape her life and the lives of other women: “The bottom line is that these women need a safe place to live.”
Messick, who has run marathons and owned a bicycle shop, is accustomed to making things happen. She found help: Triune Mercy Center; Christ Church Episcopal; Julie Valentine Center; and a safe home called Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tennessee.
One day, she walked into a room of strangers at Christ Church Episcopal; they had visited Thistle Farms and wanted to start a similar program.
“They had financial backing, but they didn’t have a connection to the women. I said, ‘Let me tell you about the women,’” Messick says.
Jasmine Road opened its doors to five women in 2018. It is modeled after Thistle Farms, which was founded 20 years ago and has 40 agencies around the country.
“We start with housing. Home is the heart of our program,” says Messick, executive director of Jasmine Road. “One woman said Jasmine Road was the first place she slept without having her shoes on. On the street, you've got to be ready to run.”
Residents surrender their cellphones, disconnect from abusers and must test negative on random drug screenings. In the first six months, the women rest and begin developing relationships and trust. They receive safe housing, transportation, therapy and free health care for the duration of the program.
No men are allowed in the house, and the location is secret.
The women care for the house, cook, open savings accounts, begin paying back debts, attend 12-step meetings and learn about other support organizations. They are offered jobs at Jasmine Kitchen or make candles and jewelry to develop job skills in a safe environment.
Ultimately, they work or go to school – and learn to function in a society that has shunned them.
“We want them to be employable, so they can provide for themselves and be productive members of the community,” Messick says. “Our mission is to ‘Heal, Empower and Employ.’”
Two of the three women who graduated from Jasmine Road in 2020 earned degrees in health and human services. One is the office manager at a social service agency, and one works for Messick as a residential care specialist.
Renovations are underway on a second house. There will be space for eight women and two transitional apartments for women who need extra support. Messick says she has received 150 applications since 2018.
“I thought that God sent me to the margins so that I could change the margins. But God sent me to the margins, so the margins could change me,” Messick says. “Every day, I get to love women back to life, to walk beside them while they heal and to watch them become the beautiful people that God created them to be.”
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Human trafficking, sexual abuse victims get help from a kind neighbor