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 Jack Daniel Betz
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The Elijah Rising Van Tour: An Activity for Activists

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Photo courtesy of Elijah Rising

Anyone who has lived in Houston has been lectured on the horrors of human trafficking. It’s barely worth discussing the basics for state residents. We all know that the I-10 corridor is a conduit for it, that seedy massage parlors are a common front and that much of it happens behind closed doors. It’s not the kind of crime you normally stumble onto by accident or even the kind crime that you would necessarily notice if it was happening closeby. But beyond those few details, the average person has little understanding of it, despite the fact that it is happening all around Houston and South Texas. To further educate Houstonians on these atrocities, the Elijah Rising van tour helps put a proverbial face on the problem and a sometimes not-so-proverbial address.

The journey started at Elijah Rising’s Galleria-area headquarters, sitting on the side of the busy Southwest Freeway. It’s a non-descript commercial property with a sign out front reading “VAN TOURS”, ushering cars into the tiny parking lot, which also contains the tinted, white tour vans.

Cat French, the van driver and founder of the faith-based Elijah Rising initiative, conducted a head count and started the tour by dropping a bombshell. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised, but the property we were standing in was repurposed from an illicit massage parlor called Angela Day Spa. The premises had been converted into office space and included a box office-style counter for selling t-shirts and a small chapel for prayer services. On our way back to tour the building, French pointed out the bolts in the front hallway where the ATM used to sit-where customers would withdraw cash. There were three large, open shower areas, where the girls would bring johns to “wash” them, which was really just a slick way of confirming that none of them were wearing wires.

Then we piled into the van, Cat leading the way with her young assistant, Emir, who manned the microphone and narrated most of the trip. The first half of the tour was spent relatively close to the office, mostly Star Lane and Bering Drive, places literally walking distance from our cars (not that it would have been a safe place for a stroll). It was impressive how many businesses were crammed into this little oxbow lake of commerce just 2 minutes from highway 59. While the cluster of buildings were not hidden in any deliberate way, it would be difficult to notice them from Fountain View to anyone not searching for a specific address. There were some warehouses and a CrossFit, but a conspicuous number of them appeared to be massage parlors. One of the spa storefronts even had the disturbing title of “Paradise Stress Reduction”, which Emir pointed out to us, even though with that name, it spoke for itself. The entire time, Cat and Emir told stories about various interactions they had with women and girls in this neighborhood, including one that was ready to be extracted, but suddenly disappeared. French even passed around a photo of a young girl that was photographed playing just inside the gated parking lot of one of the known-to-be illicit parlors on Star Lane, as we drove past that particular property. And almost as if the whole neighborhood had been constructed as some sort of trafficking theme park ride, we passed a little league game going on at a city park just a city block away, as the sun set-a perfect metaphor for how these operations are run in such clever ways that they attract almost no attention from the average person.

Then the tour took us to a desolate stretch of La Porte: a barren, industrial wasteland punctuated by little more than cantinas, potholes and monolithic storage tanks. It was the cantinas that Cat brought us to see. They were in all shape and sizes-some looking friendly and inviting, others looking more like converted garages. Some were shuttered, some were open for business. French shouted to us over the AC about encounters and interventions that she and the group had staged at a few of them. However, the most memorable La Porte stop was not even a building anymore. All that remained of this cantina was a slab of concrete and shards of wood standing on end around the perimeter, jaggedly, looking like a tornado or a explosion had in an instant obliterated all but a fraction of the property. French informed us that this bar was the site of a bust in 2012-one of the largest in Houston history: over 80 women were rescued. This incident actually resulted in a prosecution as well, which is rare. According to French, when police brought cadaver dogs on the site, they also found evidence of aborted fetuses discarded in a ditch behind the property. As we travelled back to Houston in the dark, the passengers were silent.

Without a tour guide like Cat, it can be difficult for the untrained observer to see human trafficking in action. Even though there is ample discussion of trafficking in social justice circles, and there is supposedly awareness, an experience like this would be beneficial for even the most learnéd armchair activists. It’s important that Houstonians help draw national attention to this issue, and that we remind other locales where awareness is low that it is an everyday reality in our city and state (and maybe theirs’ too). Anyone who takes the Elijah Rising tour will be able to attest, without a doubt, that human trafficking in Houston is all too real-and it may even have an address in that strip center across the street.

To book a tour, visit the site.. The event is completely free and runs on donations. In addition to van tours, donations also go to funding Elijah Rising’s new trafficking hotline. ER is in the process of placing a light-up sign on the property displaying the hotline number as a beacon for potential victims.

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