Shelter sees upswing in trafficking victims

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  • Boxes and bags of donations to Sister Sallie’s Thrift Store pile up outside of the facility in Ronan. Officials with Safe Harbor say they will soon move into a bigger facility. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

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    In April 2019, Safe Harbor officials launched Sister Sallie’s Thirft Store in Ronan as a means to financially support the emergency shelter’s services. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Boxes and bags of donations to Sister Sallie’s Thrift Store pile up outside of the facility in Ronan. Officials with Safe Harbor say they will soon move into a bigger facility. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    In April 2019, Safe Harbor officials launched Sister Sallie’s Thirft Store in Ronan as a means to financially support the emergency shelter’s services. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

Over the course of its existence, Safe Harbor in Lake County has become much more than an emergency shelter for victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence and stalking.

It has become an avenue for legal representation and crisis intervention. It’s a place that offers reliable transportation and vouchers for necessities. It’s a sanctuary for the spent and a navigator for healing and recovery — whatever that may entail for each of the thousands who have utilized Safe Harbor’s services.

“We are kind of a conduit between all of those other resources. So whatever anyone may need, we can generally provide that for them,” said Deeann Richardson, executive director of Safe Harbor. “We go at the pace of the survivor and everyone’s story is unique. Our goal is to empower these victims as much as we can.”

The nonprofit was founded in 1998 by a group of women who recognized a need for such resources on the Flathead Reservation in Lake, Missoula and Sanders counties. And according to Richardson, 21 years later that need is just as prominent now as it was then.

However, Richardson said one major change to emerge amid her decade-long tenure with the organization is an increase in the volume of sex-trafficking victims seeking refuge.

“In the last three years or so sex trafficking has really come onto the horizon,” Richardson said. “The issue has been around for longer than that, but only recently have women who are affected by it started coming to Safe Harbor.”

For the safety of the victims, the shelter itself is nestled into an undisclosed location. However, there is an office location in the heart of Ronan at 63506 U.S. 93 and Safe Harbor representatives are scattered throughout Lake County.

Richardson estimates the shelter serves between 80 and 90 women per month on average. All services are free of charge.

The majority of those who pass through the shelter do so in search of legal representation. Despite the legal team being one of the most recent add-ons to the shelter’s list of offerings, Richardson said women utilize the shelter’s lawyers almost four times more than any other service offered by Safe Harbor.

Staff are also available to accompany victims to court hearings and help them through other steps in the legal process. The lawyers at Safe Harbor are primarily supported via a grant from the Department of Justice. According to Richardson, the majority of the organization’s other operations are supported by other grants, including a sizable one from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

For an added element of financial stability, the organization launched a thrift store in April called Sister Sallie’s Thrift Shop in a strip mall across from the Cenex gas station in Ronan off U.S. 93.

Richardson said the store has seen wild success since opening its doors, not only on the funding front, but as a community conversation piece for Safe Harbor.

“It’s a good source for sustainability, but it’s also a good way for us to raise awareness of Safe Harbor with the customers who come in,” Richardson said. “People ask what Sister Sallie’s all about and that’s our opportunity to tell them their purchases go to support Safe Harbor and all the things we do.”

The thrift store is currently housed in a 2,000-square-foot facility, but an onslaught of donations over the last few months has prompted Richardson to find a new location for Sister Sallie’s. A swelling pile of bags and boxes filled with clothes, toys, household items and other salvageable goods has expanded to the outside of the thrift store in a designated donations holding area.

“Our building is 2,000 square feet but we have donations for 10 times that. The purchase of a new building couldn’t come sooner,” Richardson said. She is currently looking at purchasing a nearby 6,000-square-foot building.

Richardson said the main short-term goal for Safe Harbor is to move Sister Sallie’s into a new space and pay off the impending mortgage associated with doing so.

Once that’s complete, she’s excited to utilize the income to further the shelter’s mission.

“We want to get through this as quickly as possible so we can put our resources where they matter the most,” Richardson said.

Safe Harbor’s 24-hour emergency hotline can be reached at 406-676-0800 and for more information on services and the organization, go to safeharbormt.org

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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