The Coast News Group
The North County San Diego Stop Traffic Walk event is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 18 at Holiday Park in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo
The North County San Diego Stop Traffic Walk event is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 18 at Holiday Park in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo

Human trafficking victims highlight September awareness event

CARLSBAD — Human trafficking is a serious problem in San Diego County, with between 3,000 and 8,000 people trafficked annually. For Alisha Merlo, her volunteer work to rescue victims has become a passion. It’s one reason she is organizing the North County San Diego Stop Traffic Walk in Carlsbad.

The event is slated for 5 p.m. Sept. 18 at Holiday Park to raise funds and hear from survivors and speakers, including those from the Dream City Foundation, Phoenix Dream Center and StreetLight USA.

The Dream City Foundation consists of the PDC, StreetLight USA and Short Creek. All three have different focus areas, Merlo said.

“Sex trafficking is No. 1 here,” she added. “They are forced into this life of providing some sort of sexual exploitation services or labor against their will. Human trafficking knows no boundaries.”

One of the speakers will be Shauna Sexton, 30, a sex trafficking survivor. Her story begins with an ex-boyfriend, whom she was with for four years before life went to hell.

According to Sexton, her boyfriend was in the military and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sexton said he was even captured and tortured during one of his deployments. Once he became a civilian, he found a job, but once he lost work, things spiraled out of control, she recalled.

Sexton said she was slowly isolated from friends and family, and drug use became normalized. Her boyfriend forced her to have sex with other men for money for an entire year.

At some point, Sexton recalled having a mental breakdown. She even tried to commit suicide but the gun backfired. When the police arrived, she told them what was happening.

Eventually, Sexton discovered the Phoenix Dream Center in her Arizona hometown and it saved her life. Today, Sexton works as a program manager at the nonprofit organization.

“In July 2018, I ran from my trafficker,” Sexton said. “They took me to detox, and I found the Phoenix Dream Center. They are at no cost and women can come in and fully surrender and being the healing process. All services are in-house.”

Merlo, meanwhile, said the Dream centers, including Coastline Dream Center in Carlsbad, provide much-needed resources and support to transition victims back into society.

“It just really depends on what the needs of the area are,” Merlo said. “Coastline Dream Center is going to be building a brick-and-mortar center, eventually.”

Merlo said human trafficking is a massive industry with more than $150 billion in profits per year. It’s why the Dream City Foundation is teaming with Coastline Dream Center and Casa Del Mar, which focuses on trafficking in Mexico.

She said the border becomes a “freeway” for trafficking, especially for those at risk. Casa Del Mar provides education and training to a number of entities on how to spot, avoid and report trafficking, Merlo said.