FARGO - Whitney Fear and Jillian Gould knew their jobs would be challenging when working with Fargo-Moorhead's most vulnerable population: the homeless.
But a growing focus and concern of their work is what they believe is an increase in human trafficking of their clients in desperate situations making them the perfect targets. And among the most vulnerable to trafficking they say are American Indian women and children.
Fear, 30, is a homeless health nurse case manager with Family HealthCare, and Gould, 28, is the homeless outreach specialist for the city of Fargo's Gladys Ray Shelter. The two recently told the Fargo Native American Commission about the rise in suspected human trafficking of native women and children in hopes of raising public awareness.
"We're at a crossroads," Fear said. "If we don't get the community involved, then it's going to get more and more severe."
For the past several years, they have served on a local coalition against human trafficking, which found there were more than 72,000 ads for sex in North Dakota alone on backpage.com in 2016. That year there were 125 cases of missing native women reported to the National Crime Information Center, but it's unknown how many are victims of trafficking.
Fear and Gould say trafficking is largely underreported, but in October they started seeing more signs of suspected trafficking downtown and at shelters.
"They're not afraid to come into the lobby and threaten a client or send a female into a shelter to see if one of their girls is staying there," Gould said. "We started seeing the same vehicles near the shelters and in downtown that were consistently wanting to talk to Native American female clients."
Ruth Buffalo, who serves on the Native American Commission, said commision members intend to support the ongoing work of the coalition and that the city of Fargo is in the process of launching a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women.
"We know it's an existing issue, and we know that our Native American women population is targeted. It is a heavy topic. There's a lot of trauma that comes with it," Buffalo said, adding that a way to combat trafficking is by "supporting our front-line workers who are out in the trenches every day and witness this on a daily basis."
Fear said on many reservations violence against native women is normalized and it takes looking at root causes to understand why they are victims of trafficking. Root causes can include sexual abuse, domestic violence, mental illness and chemical dependency.
"This is a really complex issue," Fear said. "Those women out there didn't get to be this vulnerable overnight."
Fear and Gould's clients lack resources and often don't have anyone to alert authorities if they ever did go missing. Traffickers on cold days can lure victims with a warm car ride or set them up with a hotel room. Tactics like this can result in "trauma bonding," the act of remaining in an abusive relationship or situation because of intermittent reward.
Most shelters operate in the evening and offer overnight services, so homeless people don't have anywhere to go during the day.
Fear and Gould are encouraging city leaders to consider establishing a downtown drop-in center for homeless people to have a safe place to go during the day. By making the homeless less vulnerable, they say it can reduce the risk of them becoming victims of trafficking.
Fear said efforts to combat trafficking have been enhanced and that shelters and law enforcement agencies are working to collaborate by reporting suspicious activity. Buffalo echoed this and said the message she wants to get across is that "communities are on high alert."
"The communities are watching. We can all do our part by reporting anything we see that's out of the ordinary," Buffalo said. "Many of us are mothers, so we just want to do our part in making sure the community stays safe."
If you go
What: Remember the Hearts of Our Women
When: 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14
Where: Fargo City Commission chambers
Why: In honor of missing and murdered indigenous women, area mayors and speakers will give a presentation in the chambers followed by a march downtown and jingle dress exhibition. Throughout the country, there will be sister marches raising awareness of the violence against native women.