The dark side of life

Homelessness and human trafficking are among the societal issues that Style has examined. 

The October 2016 issue of Lake & Sumter Style featured a first on its magazine cover: a local homeless man, Michael Alan Jefferies, then 50, who wasn’t shy about sharing his plight of living in the woods and always looking over his shoulder to fend for his safety. 

“Being homeless is not as bad as what people think—it’s worse and it’s treacherous—I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” Michael said at the time. His words “worse and treacherous” became reality when he was brutally beaten and knocked unconscious on Aug. 5, 2016, during an altercation with another man on a bicycle path in Leesburg. Michael was airlifted to Ocala Regional Medical Center, where surgeons reconstructed his face. 

Michael was rebuilding his life and doing construction work at a Tavares restaurant six months after appearing on the cover. However, Style sadly received word in 2018 that Michael had died. The news came in an email from his brother in another state. 

Homelessness is a concern that still needs attention, Leesburg City Manager Al Minner says.

“Leesburg elected officials want to address the homeless issue,” he says. “However, chronic homelessness, cost for facility construction and perpetual operations, and a lack of overall county financial contributions has hurt our local efforts.”

Al says a few civic associations, the Salvation Army and community leaders have discussed homeless strategies, such as building a facility and sharing operating costs.

“This is a good positive move to get more attention to the problem and a political desire to address the situation,” he says.

Samaritan Inn, a Leesburg shelter for homeless families and one of eight ministries of the Christian Care Center, has served 200 homeless families since opening in 2010. Families pay nothing to stay at the shelter as they receive counseling, training and skills to rebuild their lives. The goal is for families to obtain consistent income and steady housing to make it on their own.

“We will always be full. The need is way more than what is available to homeless families,” says Bill Jones, executive director of the Christian Care Center. 

New Beginnings of Central Florida, based in Clermont, has housed 462 homeless individuals since opening in 2007, and it expanded in September 2018 with the construction of Woodwinds Apartments, which offers 96 households of permanent affordable housing.

“The apartments are a great success, and there is such a high demand that we have seen a three-year waiting list,” says Erik Segalini, community relations director for New Beginnings. On the bright side, Erik says people’s lives are being changed.

Homelessness affects more than adults, of course. Lake County Schools identified 1,947 students as homeless in the 2016 story, and that number has gone up slightly.

“Last year, Lake County Schools identified 2,019 students as homeless/transitional,” says Kristin McCall, families in transition liaison for Lake County Schools Student Services. She notes that under the McKinney-Vento Act, the term “homeless children and youths” means individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. 

Raising awareness and taking an in-depth look at human trafficking was first addressed in Style’s March 2012 issue, which generated a letter of appreciation from a Miami judge. The Lake County Human Trafficking Task Force also started in 2012 with members from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, State Attorney’s Office and Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Human trafficking remains a serious problem across the state. Figures for 2018 at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center show Florida ranked third in calls received, behind California and Texas. 

In September, the Lake County Commission took action by unanimously passing an ordinance that calls for adult entertainment establishments and businesses offering bodywork and massage services to display public awareness signs that read: 

“If you or someone you know is being forced to engage in an activity and cannot leave – whether it is prostitution, housework, farm work, factory work, retail work, restaurant work or any other activity – call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1.888.373.7888 or text INFO or HELP to 233-733 to access help and services. Victims of slavery and human trafficking are protected under the United States and Florida law.” 

Lake County Sheriff’s Office Detective Amber Vinson says there has been an increase in human trafficking cases reported, especially since the DCF started using its Human Trafficking Screening Tool, which helps identifies victims. 

The detective believes the newly passed Lake County ordinance will make a difference, too.

“Previously, the only way to shut down the massage parlors was through the Department of Health, so that will definitely help,” she says. 

Human trafficking has been called modern-day slavery. As Style reported in 2016, Leesburg native and Miss Florida 2015 MaryKatherine Fechtel Black made the issue her pageant platform, saying: “Everyone has a part in standing up against exploitation.” 

An app to help the cause

One way people can help save victims of sex trafficking is by using the app TraffickCam. The app allows travelers to post pictures of their hotel rooms, including the hotel’s name, location and hotel room number. Online photos advertising sex-trafficked girls often are taken in hotel rooms, so authorities will use these photos to determine where the perpetrators are committing these crimes, and to locate and rescue some of these girls. TraffickCam was developed by Exchange Initiative, which provides “Real Resources to End Sex Trafficking.” Visit exchangeinitiative.com/traffickcam/ to download the free app.            —Victoria Schlabig

About the Author

Originally from Anderson, Ind., Theresa worked for The Herald-Bulletin for many years. After experiencing a winter with 53 inches of snow, her late husband asked her to get a job in Florida, and they headed south. Well known in the area, Theresa worked with The Daily Sun and The Daily Commercial prior to joining Akers. “I finally have my dream job. I’ve wanted to work for a magazine since I was a teenager, and I’m very excited to be here,” Theresa says. “There is such positive energy at Akers that it’s infectious.” Theresa has three grown daughters—Julia lives in San Francisco, Emily is in Austin, Tex., and Maria is at the University of Central Florida.
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