Homeless kids fall prey to sex trafficking every day. But a yellow sign offers a way out

Yellow diamonds mark the way to a safe place for troubled kids – a modern-day underground railroad that leads to freedom from the dangers that lurk in a life on the streets.

Drugs. Prostitution. Human trafficking. Slave labor. Homeless youth fall prey to these dangers every day. But a simple yellow sign marked with the words “SAFE PLACE” offers hope.

“The Safe Place program is an option for young people who feel they have nowhere to turn,” said Wendy Gore, who oversees the Safe Place outreach at the local nonprofit Sea Haven.

The yellow, diamond-shaped signs in the windows and on the walls of fire stations, libraries, shops, restaurants and other businesses in Horry County signal a safe harbor to kids in trouble. And for those in search of the sign, a national text hotline can guide a kid to the nearest Safe Place site.

It guided one young girl seeking escape from an abusive boyfriend to Chris’ Pizza & Pub in the Longs area a few years ago.

The restaurant was awarded the Most Outstanding Safe Place Site in 2012 at a national conference.

Once at a Safe Place, a child merely asks for help and trained staff members call Sea Haven, the police or the Department of Social Services, keeping the youth safe until help arrives. Hundreds of kids have been helped through the local network.

“Everyday I walk into the bowling center and see my Safe Place sign in the door, there’s a sense of pride to that,” said Larry Nowak, proprietor of the Myrtle Beach Bowling Center. “I don’t think most people realize we are a Safe Place (site).”

The center has been a partner in the program for more than five years now and Nowak says his crew has had to call for help more than once. All of their cases have involved domestic issues.

A desperate child, who claimed feeling like a ping pong ball in a match between two separated parents, reached out to the Bowling Center with a tale of emotional abuse. The child “just wanted to run away,” Nowak said.

The center called for help and stayed with the child until help arrived.

“We got involved because we have so many young adults, children that come through the bowling center, families that we’ve recognized over the years,” he said. “There was a need for someone in our area to step up and be a place where kids could come if they were in trouble.”

The center is one of a hundred-and-five businesses throughout Horry County that offer a lifeline to at-risk kids through Sea Haven’s membership with the National Safe Place Network.

Sea Haven has been helping at-risk and homeless youth for 37 years. The agency became a Safe Place hub in 2009.

Sea Haven typically receives 30 to 40 calls a year through its Safe Place program, up from the meager two to five calls the helpline got in its first few years.

“We’ve really grown,” Gore said.

A ‘lifeline’ is born

Safe Place originated at a YMCA shelter home in Louisville, Kent., in 1983. The national network now extends to nearly 20,000 partnering businesses and community locations, managed by 139 youth agencies in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

“The first Safe Place sites were fire stations,” Gore said.

Thirty-seven fire stations in Horry County carry the yellow “Safe Place” signs today and more may be hitting the road later this year.

Gore says they plan to start adding mobile sites through the fire departments, affixing yellow diamond decals to fire trucks and ambulances to call attention to the network as crews respond to emergencies.

“It’s just a way to promote awareness,” said Christina Jackson, executive director of Sea Haven. “It’s really our job to promote it in the community to make sure that (kids) know this is a Safe Place that you can go to, to get help.”

Sea Haven staff spends time in schools, on the streets and at popular hangouts, spreading the word about Safe Place and the help the agency offers to keep kids off of the streets.

“There needs to be a lifeline. You’ve got to know there’s some place to go. That’s how I got involved,” Nowak said. “I’ve seen the dark side of it when kids don’t have a place to go.”

Nearly one in five homeless youth surveyed across the country admitted they had been victims of human trafficking, according to a recent study by the Covenant House, The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research and Loyola University.

One in three of the ones interviewed had been sexually exploited, the study revealed.

And homeless kids on the Grand Strand are not immune to those dangers.

The average age of trafficked victims is 12 to 14 years old, according to the FBI. Jackson says she and her partners have seen victims younger than that.

Sea Haven operates four programs for runaway homeless at-risk youth in Horry County, including the only drop-in center in South Carolina for street kids up to age 21. Project Lighthouse at 305 Highway 15 in Myrtle Beach offers youth a safe place to shower, do laundry, get survival gear and access services like counseling. It’s free and workers use the opportunity to get to know the kids in an effort to eventually get them into other programs offered by Sea Haven to help them escape the streets.

“We don’t want them on the streets. They’re going to get eaten up on these streets here,” Jackson said.

Missing the count

Organizations counted 5,051 homeless people in South Carolina on Jan. 27, 2016, according to Point-In-Time Count figures submitted to the Housing of Urban Development last year. One out of five of them were under the age of 24.

But advocates who work with the homeless say those numbers are way off and since those figures determine how much aid counties receive, the miscount really hurts.

“There are good things to the Point-In-Time count, (but) it will never be accurate for kids because you will never find all these kids,” Jackson said.

Many slip through the cracks, Gore added, and many others decline to fill out the two-page survey required for them to count.

One South Carolina county found 75 people to survey, but only 42 completed the questionnaires. Only the 42 were counted.

“When you’re talking about young people and you’ve got a two-page survey, you can hang it up because after the first few sentences, they’re done,” Jackson said. “Look at all of the people that we’re missing.”

The need is there and saving the county’s most vulnerable from the dangers that lurk on the streets is top priority for Sea Haven.

“My goal is to make sure these kids are safe, get them into a safe place, meet their emergency needs and take care of them,” Jackson said. Sea Haven offers several programs to help kids hone life skills, like GED courses, job training and housing assistance to break the chains of homelessness.

The agency sees more than 400 youth a year in its programs, Jackson said.

She encourages any person or group that wants to help to contact Sea Haven and utilize the resources and experience her trained staff has to offer.

“Our goals for the future are to increase awareness, educate the community and provide a safe place for our kids,” Jackson said.

The agency celebrated the grand opening of its new Little River shelter, offering emergency placement for at-risk homeless youth between the ages of 13 and 17 on May 12.

Much like the Safe Place network in Horry County, Sea Haven’s new shelter took a lot of partners to build. A recreation center and the agency’s administrative offices sandwich the shelter on a 7-acre campus along S.C. Highway 57.

“There’s an old saying that ‘victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.’ When you look around Sea Haven you can see that this is a project and a dream that really did have a thousand fathers,” S.C. Sen. Greg Hembree said at the grand opening.

“A thousand fathers” and 105 businesses are working with Sea Haven to become the village needed to raise a child.

Emily Weaver: 843-444-1722, @TSNEmily


Find a place with the Safe Place yellow diamond sign and ask for help.

Text “SAFE” and your current location (address, city and state) to 69866.

Call Sea Haven, Inc. at 843-399-9025.

Website: http://www.seahaveninc.com/

Sea Haven’s Transitional Living Program

Phone: 843-213-1133

Address: 305 Highway 15, Myrtle Beach

Sea Haven’s Project Lighthouse (for 13-21 year olds)

(drop-in center)

Phone: 843-626-1446

Address: 305 Highway 15, Myrtle Beach

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Phone: 1-888-373-7888

Text: “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733

Website: https://humantraffickinghotline.org/