Oakland church helps sex workers get off streets and back home

"All these women here have a story," Pastor Vigil said. "Sometimes they come to church and say please pray for my family."

Stephanie Sierra Image
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
Oakland church helps sex workers get off streets, back home
EMBED <>More Videos

An Oakland church is collecting funds to send women believed to be trafficked sex workers back home, following an I-Team report exposing the problem.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- An East Oakland church is collecting funds to send women believed to be trafficked sex workers back home, following an I-Team investigation exposing the problem nearby a local grade school.

"We've sent three women home," said Michael Vigil, the pastor at Victory Outreach church, an evangelical church along International Boulevard that's dedicated to supporting victims of sex trafficking. "It's our mission to provide support."

Vigil, who goes by Pastor Mike, grew up next door to the church. He's seen first-hand how human trafficking operations have evolved across Oakland over the past three decades.

"You're going to see firsthand," said Vigil as he pointed to a street corner where ministry staff provides outreach to women working the streets. "It's getting a lot worse."

RELATED: Video showing alleged sex workers soliciting outside East Oakland school sparks call for action

Pastor Mike says that's because the victims are getting younger - a 12 year old girl was rescued along International Boulevard last week.

"These are children out there," Vigil said. "We're seeing the pimps pretty young too."

"How young?" ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked.

"I've seen some 18, 19, some as young as 17," Vigil said.

Pastor Mike says the women have to discreetly enter the church as they're often watched by their pimps lining International Boulevard.

"They can't walk into the church?" Sierra asked.

"No," Vigil said.

"Why?"

RELATED: Oakland police, FBI take action to assess trafficking concerns near school after I-Team report

"Because maybe they're being watched," he said.

One man even tried to take the pastor's daughter.

"He pulled up right here," Vigil said as he pointed to the sidewalk outside the church. "He jumped out of the car in this direction, my youngest daughter was inviting people to our church and he tried to take her into the car."

Vigil says the streets are more violent now - there's not a day without gunshots, even during church service on Sunday.

But amidst all the chaos, his parish provides these women a place for peace, 24 hours a day.

"They come, they refresh, they shower, we feed them, we clothe them," Vigil said. "They come at all hours of the day, some at midnight or 3 a.m. or 4 a.m."

Pastor Mike calls the victims treasures. He says they come in usually looking for a way out.

"We've had women crying just to get in here to get prayer," Vigil said.

RELATED: Oakland officials, CA lawmaker to meet over alleged sex workers regularly seen near school

Police say 65% of the women working in East Oakland are from out of state or have been brought in from outside the city.

"We've met some from Frisco, Vallejo, Fairfield, Denver, all the way to Kansas City and Kentucky," said Pastor Mike.

Auntie Dee the church outreach coordinator says the parish staff will see the women and children dropped off and picking up in vans at various hours of the day.

"Yesterday, I drove around and there was a young girl, a child, from Idaho," said Auntie Dee. "She looked so lost and scared."

"Did you talk to her?" Sierra asked.

"Absolutely," Dee said. "I hope I see her out tonight. Because if I see her out tonight, I'm able to offer her where there's an open bed."

Dee says the church is seeing more teens than young adults seek their help - many of them struggling with drug addiction.

Stephanie Sierra: "Of the women you interact with on a weekly basis, do you find that most of them want to go home?"

Auntie Dee: "They don't want to stay or go, they're escaping something. There's often have no home to go, too."

RELATED: Oakland officials, CA lawmaker to meet over alleged sex workers regularly seen near school

But for those who do have a safe place to go, the church community is paying for it.

"We contact their families, we graciously use our personal funds and send them home," said Pastor Mike.

Many of the women who seek refuge at Victory Outreach church also work the streets along E. 15th. Following our story exposing human trafficking concerns near St. Anthony's school, Pastor Mike says three women working in the area were recently provided a flight to return home.

"All these women here have a story," said Vigil. "Sometimes they come to church and say please pray for my family."

In the church bathroom, you'll find notes the women have left each other encouraging positive prayer and encouraging one another to get out.

The I-Team spoke to Julia Cameron, a Victory Outreach volunteer who grew up on the streets of east Oakland.

MORE: Resolution pushing to legalize sex work in CA introduced by SF supervisor

Sierra: "At any point, did you contemplate..."

Julia Cameron: "Being a treasure? Yes. Because when you're at that low in life, it's all about money."

For years, Cameron watched women working on the streets in pain, just to make a mere $20.

"A lot of people out here want it fast," said Cameron. "And being a treasure is one way of doing it fast."

Cameron was able to get out, despite struggling with her drug addiction.

"I was drug addicted to meth on and off for 25 years," said Cameron. "Coming here saved my life."

Pastor Mike says the church has raised $1,000 in recent weeks with plans to send other women home over the next several months.

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live