LEWISTON — A new emergency shelter for victims and survivors of sex-trafficking and exploitation – considered the first of its kind in Maine – was celebrated by local and state agencies and law enforcement Thursday as an important step for recovery efforts.

The program, to be housed at an undisclosed location in Androscoggin County, will provide a short-term safe house for victims, with services such as access to medical care, substance-use recovery, case management and mentoring.

The agencies spearheading the effort are all in Androscoggin County.

Led by Safe Voices, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, they said the new shelter adds a needed support system to existing services.

“It’s important for us to have this particular need at this level,” said Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

She said the safe house can be a starting point for victims trying to escape trafficking.

Law enforcement officials said the safe house will give officers a place to refer victims in sex-trafficking cases when they are at their most vulnerable.

Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley said when his department makes sex-trafficking arrests, it’s often in the middle of the night, and it’s difficult to find a safe place for victims.

“This is a huge benefit to us that we no longer have to be concerned that this person is going to be re-victimized, that there’s somewhere for them to get support, and have safe housing,” O’Malley said.

One such survivor, Cathy Geren, said during the news conference that she escaped sex-trafficking in 2015 after multiple attempts. Part of the difficulty, she said, was finding a safe place to stay where it wasn’t easy for her trafficker to find her.

She works at Hope Rising, a residential treatment program, as a survivor leader and advocate, facilitating recovery groups. She’s also attending the University of Maine at Augusta.

Elise Johansen, executive director of Safe Voices, said the new program is the result of years of collaboration. MaineHousing provided the shelter space by donating a foreclosed property that fit the program’s needs.

Johansen said a number of businesses, both local and national, have donated goods for the safe house. One business has donated all of the beds, sheets and pillows, she said.

Also at the news conference Thursday was Janet Mills, Maine’s attorney general; Andrew Robinson, district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties; and the police chiefs of Lewiston and Auburn.

Mills said she was able to get money from previous settlements to put toward renovations at the shelter.

She said sex-trafficking, like domestic violence at one time, is something that has not historically been talked about.

“Now we know that survivors of human trafficking have specific needs; they come out of the life needing support,” Mills said, such as long-term protection, housing and job training. “I’m really hopeful we can help put an end to human-trafficking.”

The program will open its doors in September, and will seek to address Maine’s need for both emergency and confidential services for survivors.

Marty McIntyre, executive director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, said the local agencies, including Safe Voices, have been providing services to victims of sex-trafficking for decades with “extremely limited resources.”

She said traffickers control the lives of others through force, fraud or coercion, and use strategies to lure vulnerable people.

Andrew Rice can be contacted at

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