On March 24, the same day that downtown San Francisco swelled with thousands of protesters marching in support of victims of gun violence, nearly 50 St. Ignatius parishioners quietly fanned out on the same streets in solidarity with a less visible group of victims – the victims of human trafficking. 

Effective Jan. 1, 2018, Senate Bill 1193 added California Civil Code 52.6 to the law requiring a list of 13 business sectors to post a prominent bilingual poster with a hotline number for victims of human trafficking seeking help or for others to report suspicious or unlawful activity. Failure to do so carries a fine of up to $1,000. Included on the list are hotels, motels and bed and breakfast inns which are often hubs for human trafficking.

California defines human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons or modern-day slavery, as a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts. The coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological, and may involve the use of violence, threats, lies, or debt bondage. 

Traveling on foot from fleabag flophouses to four-star hotels and everything in between, the trained parishioners knocked on doors with the goal of educating owners or managers about the new law, improving its enforcement and reducing the incidence of trafficked human beings. They came armed with the required poster, a copy of Civil Code 52.6, a letter from interim San Francisco Mayor Mark Ferrell, and a list of “victim indicators” that can help front desk, concierge, bellmen, housekeeping staff and others recognize possible trafficking activity. 

The FBI has identified California as one of the top four states for trafficked persons according to the mayor’s office, and the Bay Area in general is a national hotspot. 

According to parishioner Mary Yanish, the parish’s advocacy committee targeted human trafficking – an umbrella that includes sex trade trafficking and labor trafficking – after a long period of discernment with Jesuit Father John Coleman, associate pastor. The advocacy project had the enthusiastic support of Jesuit Father Greg Bonfiglio, pastor, as well. 

“They were startled when they found out they could be fined if they did not have the poster up,” she said. Though they were grateful for the visit and were eager to support the crackdown, none of them knew or believed it was a big problem in San Francisco. “I think that was really an eye-opener for them.” 

According to Gail Priestly, the San Francisco Police Department has been candid with the faith community about lacking the resources to do this work. “So we are collaborating with them and also this larger body of people of faith,” she said.

“The police chief said we need your help,” Yanish said. “We need churches to help us enforce these laws.”

Full story at Catholic San Francisco.