Christine’s Place opened its doors to the community on December 18, just a few weeks after the organization purchased the building at Quincy and Independence avenues from longtime barber Joe Vento.
The first phase of the project, which will be a drop-in center for those being sexually exploited in Kansas City, focuses on getting the victimized women, men and children off the street and out of the cold, even if just temporarily.
The drop-in center grew out of the passion of Christine McDonald, who was prostituted on Independence Avenue for 17 years. She now works to rescue other women, using her experiences to make them feel understood and give them hope.
On Friday, members of Relentless Pursuit Outreach and Recovery (RPOR), who are partnering with McDonald for the renovations, gave tours of the facility and shared their common mission with members of the community.
Right inside the door, bags of hygeine essentials are available. Inside, visitors can find warm clothing, shoes, socks, hats and gloves. All of these items were donated by the community.
There are sofas, tables and chairs, a television, and a fully stocked snack bar for relaxing and recharging. Whether victims want to come in and warm up with a cup of coffee, grab a snack, take a nap or use the restroom, Christine’s Place will be a safe space for them to do so.
When Lee Gibson, founder of RPOR, told his team that he wanted to open the drop-in center by the end of the year, they were hesitant. But his persistence, along with a lot of late nights, made it happen. Everything from the furniture and flooring to the labor was donated to make Christine’s Place a reality.
“Winter is coming, it’s cold, just to give the girls somewhere to come in,” Gibson said of his motivation to open so soon.
Moving forward, they will assess the need for expansion based on the number of visitors they receive to the drop-in center, while working on the crisis shelter on the second level.
“Getting the crisis shelter open is the next phase… so when law enforcement does their stings, they can bring the girls to us and we’ll have the beds,” Gibson said.
McDonald and RPOR advocate for the prosecution of the buyer, rather than racking up a criminal record for the prostituted person. They are working with law enforcement and human trafficking victim advocates across the state, including Missouri Highway Patrol, Homeland Security and Allison Phillips with the Attorney General’s Office, who views Christine’s Place as a step on a stairway.
“How do you go from being bought and sold on the streets here in a community like this after having that kind of background to building a productive and healthy life?” Phillips asked. “Especially if you don’t have a family, don’t have any resources, you have PTSD and all this stuff… it doesn’t happen over night. You have to have a support system, and that’s what this place is.”
While every victim’s story is different, Phillips said they usually begin with abuse during childhood, and ending up on the streets to escape those situations. She said even a good night’s sleep somewhere safe can allow someone to think clearly enough to decide to seek help.
“I see it as a game changer,” Phillips said. “For decades women have been murdered in the most horrid ways in this neighborhood, this community, and have felt like they have no options or way to get out of it.”
From the perspective of the Attorney General’s Office, Phillips would like to see other cities across the state implement the model created by Christine’s Place, noting that each would have to be tailored to the specific situation.
“Not only is it going to offer that staircase for these women, it also sends a signal out in the community,” Phillips said. “A lot of this is going on because of the apathy, because no one is looking. These men drive out from the nicest parts of town and they do it because nobody’s going to say anything, but that’s not true anymore.”
Gibson said it can change a victim’s whole perspective by just treating them like a person worthy of help. He said it breaks his heart when the women they are trying to help think he’ll expect something in return.
“They’re providing examples of what a man is supposed to be like,” Phillips said of the team at Christine’s Place. The center will be staffed by RPOR team members and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.