Community Connect

Office of the Vice President for Community Services

Center for Architectural Engagement

Safe Haven

UTSA architecture students design a center for human–trafficking victims, runaways and abandoned youth

Master’s students in UTSA’s College of Architecture, Construction and Planning have completed four unique design concepts for a facility that could serve as a safe haven for victims of human trafficking.

Architecture students completed the concepts as part of their fall 2014 graduate design studio under the direction of Sue Ann Pemberton, director of the UTSA Center for Architectural Engagement, senior lecturer of historic preservation and architecture and president of the San Antonio Conservation Society. The project was chosen, Pemberton says, as a way to educate UTSA students about the pressing needs of human–trafficking victims.

The students worked closely with community supervisors from the Alamo Area Coalition Against Trafficking, which addresses housing juvenile victims of human trafficking in Bexar County. They were challenged to provide AACAT with concepts for a youth respite center, or “transition home,” that would serve as an alternative to the juvenile detention centers where thousands of trafficking victims are placed each year.

The transition home would house for up to 90 days victimized youth, runaways and “throwaway youth” or abandoned youth—all terms used to describe children and teens abandoned by their parents. It would also house a variety of services and programming, such as legal counsel, social services and rehabilitation care.

“As architects, we strive to do good in our community, using our mastery of design and the built environment,” Pemberton says. “The students have turned out some truly incredible work that exemplifies the good that we as architects can do. We hope that these designs can provide the community clients with a solid start to something that could have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of these victims.”

The students in Pemberton’s class split into four groups. Each group designed its own comprehensive plan for the proposed transition home. The groups operated like an architecture firm, with each student handling separate aspects of the concept. The teams visited juvenile detention centers and halfway facilities throughout Texas to gather firsthand accounts and opinions from victims.

“Children and youths who are on the streets are at high risk of being trafficked for sex, using drugs and engaging in criminal behaviors,” says Charles Paul, CPS special investigator with the Department of Family and Protective

Services and liaison to the SAPD’s Major Crimes Division. “The UTSA students rose to our challenge. Their passion and enthusiasm for this project became evident as they researched the issues. Their plans showed that they understood the needs of the client. All four designs were very well–prepared and can hopefully become a beginning to the healing and betterment of our target clients.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the San Antonio area, specifically the interchange between IH–10 and IH–35, is a major human trafficking distribution route. Approximately 100,000 children and teenagers are estimated to be in the sex trade in the United States each year, per the Polaris Project, a U.S.–based nongovernmental organization that focuses and studies human trafficking. In 2013 alone, according to Paul, the SAPD received more than 3,600 reports of children having run away, with more than 263 children in Bexar County flagged as potential victims of sex trafficking.

Pemberton says this is the first step of the effort. The AACAT Facilities Committee will be free to use the designs however they see fit in order to obtain capital funding to build the facility. Pemberton and UTSA students will continue to work with the committee as design and programming consultants until the transition home comes to fruition.

“The reason I chose to major in this profession is because I wanted to help people through my design work,” says Amanda Phelps, architecture student. “I feel like even if they don’t ultimately end up using our designs, I’m incredibly blessed to have helped in this effort. I think everyone who worked on this project considers this an incredibly impactful and worthwhile endeavor.”