Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

Bon Secours Virginia Health System announced Tuesday, Jan. 30, it has donated a four-bedroom, transitional housing shelter for women who are victims of sex trafficking. It is the region’s first shelter dedicated to providing transitional housing, counseling and case management to adult female human trafficking victims in a single location.

Toni Ardabell, CEO of Bon Secours Virginia Health System, told more than 100 people gathered at St. Mary’s Hospital that the donation is consistent with the health system’s mission.

“We serve those who are vulnerable. Those who are trafficked are vulnerable,” she said.

In 2017, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, it received 260 calls from Virginia, with 83 cases of human trafficking reported. Fifty-six of those cases were termed “sex trafficking.”

When the shelter, whose location is undisclosed in order to protect victims, opens later this month, it will house six women at one time. Clients will be able to stay at the shelter “as long as needed,” according to Ardabell. While there, they will be learning life skills, securing employment or going to school.

Safe Harbor, which has operated an emergency shelter for trafficking victims since January 2017, will oversee operation of the transitional facility. It received a two-year grant of $500,000 per year from the Department of Criminal Justice Services VOCA New Initiative Victim Assistance Grant Program to establish both the emergency and transitional human trafficking shelters. The grant funds victim services staffing, essential equipment and supplies for the shelters.

In a release from the agency, Cathy Easter, executive director, said, “The transition shelter provides critical support to victims who are on their way to living independent and happy lives.”

On Thursday, Feb. 8, World Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, Pope Francis called for prayers to end the “shameful scourge” of human trafficking. He noted this year’s theme was dedicated to ending the trafficking of migrants.

“Having few possible legal channels, many migrants decide to risk other avenues, where often there awaits abuse of every kind, exploitation and slavery,” the pope said Feb. 7 at the end of his weekly general audience.

Criminal organizations specialized in trafficking people take advantage of migratory flows “to hide their victims among migrants and refugees,” he added.

In an appeal, the pope invited everyone to “join forces to prevent trafficking and guarantee protection and assistance to victims.”

“Let us all pray that the Lord would convert the hearts of traffickers — an ugly word, traffickers of people — and may give those suffering because of this shameful scourge the hope to regain freedom,” he added.

The world day of prayer falls each year on Feb. 8, the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Sudan and Italy. Once Josephine was freed, she became a Canossian nun and dedicated her life to sharing her testament of deliverance from slavery and comforting the poor and suffering.

With reporting from Catholic News Service