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Survivors of human trafficking extend lifeline to victims still on the street in Sonoma County

How to reach Redemption House

Phone: 707-697-2099

Email: redemptionhousesonomacounty@gmail.com

Elizabeth Quiroz: vasquezelizabeth85@gmail.com

Lisa Diaz-McQuaid: lisacdiaz74@gmail.com

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.

“They’re not throwaways. Let’s restore them, get them back into society.” Elizabeth Quiroz

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.”

From left, Elizabeth Quiroz, Megan Berger and Lisa Diaz-McQuaid load handbags filled with basic essentials to give to women they fear are in vulnerable positions during street outreach for the Redemption House of the Bay Area in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.  Redemption House is the county's first support group specifically for those being trafficked or who recently escaped from human trafficking. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
From left, Elizabeth Quiroz, Megan Berger and Lisa Diaz-McQuaid load handbags filled with basic essentials to give to women they fear are in vulnerable positions during street outreach for the Redemption House of the Bay Area in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Redemption House is the county's first support group specifically for those being trafficked or who recently escaped from human trafficking. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

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.

How to reach Redemption House

Phone: 707-697-2099

Email: redemptionhousesonomacounty@gmail.com

Elizabeth Quiroz: vasquezelizabeth85@gmail.com

Lisa Diaz-McQuaid: lisacdiaz74@gmail.com

“They can learn life skills and get education,” Quiroz interjected, excitedly. “We have connections at the junior college.

“We need this house! It’s urgent,” she added. “We’re hoping the community can help with funding, or donations.”

“Liz and Lisa” do more than hit the streets, providing hope and supplies to trafficking victims.

“It isn’t just women sent over in shipping containers to be prostituted. It’s that, but it’s much more than that.” Sylvie Vatinelle

“They are educating our county, and the state, on human trafficking, so people understand what it is,” said Sylvie Vatinelle, director of Athena House, a residential treatment facility in Santa Rosa.

She’s also a member of Redemption House’s board of directors. And its treasurer and grant writer.

“It isn’t just women sent over in shipping containers to be prostituted,” she said. “It’s that, but it’s much more than that.”

Prevalent in Sonoma County

Human trafficking is “the act of violating the personal liberty of another with the intent to obtain forced labor or services,” wrote Brian Staebell and Marsha Lucien in a Press Democrat guest column earlier this year. Lucien is executive director of the Family Justice Center of Sonoma County; Staebell is a chief deputy district attorney for the county.

“Perhaps to some that conjures up images of young females being lured from their parents by online predators,” they wrote. “Others may imagine immigrants packed into trucks and being delivered into forced labor. While those scenarios certainly exist, they don’t paint the full picture.

“In reality, human trafficking can take a much subtler form, one that operates in the open and yet is incredibly hard to detect. While force and violence are standard tools for many traffickers, manipulation is just as or more common.”

Around the world, an estimated 25 million people are subjected to human trafficking and forced labor, which is responsible for an estimated $150 billion annually in illicit profits, according to information released by the White House earlier this month.

“In reality, human trafficking can take a much subtler form, one that operates in the open and yet is incredibly hard to detect. While force and violence are standard tools for many traffickers, manipulation is just as or more common.”

Between 2007 and 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of over 74,000 cases of trafficking in the United States, with nearly 13,000 of those coming from California.

The San Francisco Bay Area is “major destination point” for human trafficking, said Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, the Santa Rosa-based rape crisis, trauma and healing center.

Both sex and labor trafficking are “very prevalent” in Sonoma County, she added.

Right now, Verity is working with around 70 people who are either sex or labor trafficked, which Castillo describes as “kind of the tip of the iceberg.”

Many trafficking victims are younger, and don’t realize what’s happening to them.

“They think, ‘This is my boyfriend, I love my boyfriend, I’m going to do what he wants me to do,” Castillo said.

Rising from the flames

That resonates with the co-founders of Redemption House, whose logo features a sword-wielding woman passing through fire – “a woman warrior rising out of the flames,” as Diaz-McQaid describes it.

She and Quiroz have shown remarkable resilience to pass through, and overcome, their respective trials and tribulations.

Born into a family of “gang members, drug addicts and alcoholics,” she said, Quiroz endured physical abuse and sexual assaults beginning at the age of four.

From left, Elizabeth Quiroz, Lisa Diaz-McQuaid and Megan Berger load handbags filled with basic essentials to give to women they fear are in vulnerable positions during street outreach for Redemption House of the Bay Area in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Redemption House is the county's first support group specifically for those being trafficked or who recently escaped from human trafficking  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
From left, Elizabeth Quiroz, Lisa Diaz-McQuaid and Megan Berger load handbags filled with basic essentials to give to women they fear are in vulnerable positions during street outreach for Redemption House of the Bay Area in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Redemption House is the county's first support group specifically for those being trafficked or who recently escaped from human trafficking (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

At 15, she ran away from home – and “into the arms” of her trafficker, who promptly got her hooked on methamphetamines, she recalled.

For about 12 years, she was addicted and trafficked on the streets of San Francisco. She was incarcerated numerous times.

Following her final arrest, at the age of 26, Quiroz lost custody of her 3-month-old son, a turn of events that “brought me back to life,” she said.

Since completing that prison term, she has battled to reclaim her life. Quiroz earned three associates degrees at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she served as president of the Second Chance Club for formerly incarcerated students. While attending school full time, she was also hopscotching between several counties, appearing at countless court hearings to regain custody of her son, and have her convictions expunged.

Quiroz was in the car with her husband on Christmas Eve 2018, when a call came in from the office of then-Gov.Jerry Brown. She had received a full and unconditional pardon.

“I was screaming and crying,” she recalled. “My husband was like, ‘Whoa – what’s going on?’”

In May, she walked across the stage at Sonoma State University to receive her degree in Sociology. Cheering in the audience was her son. Nine years after having him taken from her, she had regained full custody.

Elizabeth Quiroz, founder of the Redemption House of the Bay Area, and Bill Bartle load Christmas stocking filled basic essentials to give to women they fear are in vulnerable positions during street outreach in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Redemption House is the county's first support group specifically for those being trafficked or who recently escaped from human trafficking. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Elizabeth Quiroz, founder of the Redemption House of the Bay Area, and Bill Bartle load Christmas stocking filled basic essentials to give to women they fear are in vulnerable positions during street outreach in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Redemption House is the county's first support group specifically for those being trafficked or who recently escaped from human trafficking. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“I was completely broken”

At the time Diaz-McQuaid was arrested for selling drugs five years ago, she was also being sex trafficked.

“I had been in that life from, like, 1996 to 2016,” she recalled. “I was completely broken, physically, mentally, spiritually.”

“It’s manipulation, it’s survival,” she said, explaining the dynamic between her and her trafficker.

“When you’re someone who has low self-esteem or self-worth, and you’re broken, and you don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like, what a healthy love looks like – that attention” from your trafficker, “the feeling that somebody cares about you, drives you closer to them, even though they are benefiting from your trauma.”

One day in prison, she saw a stack of pocket Bibles, and took one to her cell. Though she “didn’t fully comprehend what I was reading,” she recalled, “I was getting some of it. And I just started praying.”

After serving her sentence, Diaz-McQuaid slipped up and failed a drug test. She was at risk of going back to prison.

But the probation officer she was working with gave her another chance, telling her, “I see something in you that you don’t see in yourself.”

“I think about that all the time,” said Diaz-McQuaid. “I’m so grateful to her. I got another chance, and did something completely different.”

She entered residential treatment at Athena House, making an immediate impression on Vatinelle, director of that facility.

“She’d obviously suffered a lot of trauma in her life,” Vatinelle said. “But I felt right away her amazing strength and resilience. She just had a desire to rise above – to conquer it.”

After Diaz-McQuaid completed the program, she was asked to work for Athena House, part time, which she still does.

In late 2018, Vatinelle reached out to another strong, resilient woman: “I’d heard a lot about Elizabeth as a drug and alcohol counselor,” she recalled. “I called her up and just told her, ‘You need to come work for me.’”

Quiroz did.

It was a time of maximum stress for Quiroz, as she balanced work, school and court dates. “I could have broke at any moment,” she said. But her faith in a higher power, plus support from her mentors, carried her through.

That’s her message to trafficking victims. “You don’t have to do this alone.”

Working with Redemption House, they won’t have to.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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