LISTEN: A first-of-its-kind facility for Chatham County is the recipient of a $750,000 federal grant meant to help kickstart operations. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia David Estes speaks outside the United Way of the Coastal Empire in downtown Savannah on Dec. 8, 2022, about federal funding for Tharros Place.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia David Estes speaks in downtown Savannah on Dec. 8, 2022, about federal funding for Tharros Place, a shelter under development for child survivors of human trafficking.

Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News

A shelter under development in Savannah's Chatham County for child survivors of human trafficking will receive a multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help fund operations for the 12-bed facility, scheduled to open in summer 2023.

Tharros Place announced this month that the DOJ is awarding $250,000 annually over three years to the nonprofit, which is building what would become the first facility of its kind in the county, as it will exclusively serve girls between the ages of 11 and 17.

“The Department of Justice's investment in this project recognizes the need — the dire need — in our community for a residential facility for minor victims of human trafficking,” said Tharros Place executive director Julie Wade. “It's also an economic investment in our community, as we will employ up to 30 people to man our facility 24/7, 365 with at least two staff members on at all times.”

Wade said that the goal of Tharros Place includes not just providing shelter for these girls, but also transitioning them to a life free from abuse. Fewer than 55 shelter beds exist statewide for juvenile victims of human trafficking, according to the nonprofit.

“Each young person will have their own room,” Wade said of the facility. “We are in partnership with [Savannah College of Art and Design] and IKEA to design and decorate and furnish our facility so we can make it bright and inspiring for our young people who come in, so that they can deal with the trauma that they have experienced and they can gain life skills and education and counseling services to return to a life of wellbeing, confidence and independence.”

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia David Estes said that his office — which oversees 43 counties — has seen an increase in cases involving human trafficking.

“Sometimes we stumble onto situations where we have juvenile victims, and we're not equipped to handle those issues immediately,” Estes said. “And having someplace that our Victim Witness [Assistance Program] can refer and handle in a crisis, a short-term serious issue, is a great help to us.”

Wade — a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of Georgia — pointed to Savannah's strong tourism industry and busy port as forces behind human trafficking demand, adding to poverty, which he called the “prime driver."

“Most of these young people are being trafficked in exchange for, frankly, basic needs,” Wade said. “And so you might have a young person who's 14 years old, she thinks she has a boyfriend who is 30 years old who is allowing her to sleep on the sofa and maybe provide basic needs. In exchange, she is providing sex to this person and his network, whether it's friends or business folks or whatever.”

Wade said that 15 years ago, situations like these would often be regarded as “child prostitution, and we would lock up these young people in the youth detention center. And it's only recently that the conversation has changed to focus on these young people as victims of rape and assault and trauma.”