Survivors of human trafficking extend lifeline to victims still on the street in Sonoma County
Elizabeth Quiroz was delivering a presentation, talking to students at the Santa Rosa Junior College about human trafficking. She couldn’t help noticing the woman in the front row, fighting back tears and hanging on her every word.
This was 2017. Newly sober, Lisa Diaz-McQuaid had been urged by her sponsor to always sit up front, whether she was at a meeting, in church, or in the classroom.
Quiroz spoke from her heart – and from experience.
She is a survivor of trafficking that began when she was 15. Clean for more than a decade, she has overcome addiction, arrests and incarceration. Since turning her life around, Quiroz has earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Sonoma State University and received a full pardon from California’s governor.
As Quiroz recounted her experiences at the junior college that day, Diaz-McQuaid came close to crying.
“I had a lump in my throat,” she recalled. “I remember thinking, oh my gosh, that’s me.”
They connected after class, then met a few days later in a parking lot off Corby Avenue.
“She told me her story,” said Quiroz, “and I’m like, ‘Yes, girl, you are definitely a survivor of trafficking. Now, let’s use that.’”
In 2018, they formed Redemption House of the Bay Area. It is Sonoma County’s first group dedicated specifically to helping those being trafficked, or who have escaped from trafficking.
In addition to holding bimonthly meetings, they conduct street outreach -- visiting homeless encampments, hotel parking lots, pounding the pavement, distributing flyers. Their aim is to find trafficking victims and, if those people so desire, get them to safety.
“They’re not throwaways,” said Quiroz, who also works as a counselor at Athena House, a Santa Rosa treatment facility for women. “Let’s restore them, get them back into society.”
A light in the darkness
Born and raised in Santa Rosa, Diaz-McQuaid is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. Like Quiroz, she had served time in prison. And like Quiroz, she’d been trafficked – although Diaz-McQuaid didn’t realize, at the time, that there was a specific term for how she was being illegally exploited.
Now four years clean and sober, Diaz-McQuaid speaks of the “beautiful blessings” she’s received in recovery. She’s working full time, as an advocate for the homeless for Santa Rosa Community Health, and taking classes toward a degree in Human Services.
Her purpose at Redemption House, she said, is “Going out there and being a light for those women that are in the dark.”
Included in the assistance they offer are handbags – donated by another nonprofit, Julie’s Purse Project — packed with toiletries and other essentials. Tucked away in the purses are flyers with information on how the victims can escape their circumstance.
“I can’t tell you how much I respect and support these women,” said Jan Blalock, who chairs the Commission on the Status of Women in Sonoma County.
After hearing Quiroz speak at a meeting of the Commission, Blalock invited her to serve on the county’s Human Trafficking Task Force. Now a member of the Redemption House board, Blalock has accompanied “Liz and Lisa” on outreach missions to homeless encampments.
She was deeply impressed, and inspired, she said, by their ability to connect with people “that are really at the bottom, in their lives, women that have big walls up and are very fearful, but they know (Quiroz and Diaz-McQuaid) are on their side, they want to show them the way out of the life they’re in.”
“We need this house!”
While Quiroz and Diaz-McQuaid can refer trafficking victims to nonprofits like Verity and Catholic Charities for short-term housing, they can’t offer long-term shelter, for now. Their goal is to open a safe house specifically for trafficking victims.
“It will be at an undisclosed location, where they can go to heal, and receive group therapy sessions,” said Diaz-McQuaid. Those with addiction issues can get outpatient treatment during the day, and return to the safe house at night.