UTSA architecture students design center for human trafficking victims, runaways & abandoned youth

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Courtesy: UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning

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(Feb. 11, 2015) -- Master's students in The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) College of Architecture, Construction and Planning recently completed four unique design concepts for a facility that could serve as a safe haven for victims of human trafficking in the region.

The architecture students completed the concepts as part of their fall 2014 graduate design studio under the direction of Sue Ann Pemberton, senior lecturer of historic preservation and architecture, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, director of the UTSA Center for Architectural Engagement and Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA). The project was chosen, Pemberton said, as a way to educate UTSA students about the pressing needs of young human trafficking victims while also “providing a vision for awareness.”

The students worked closely with community supervisors from the Alamo Area Coalition Against Trafficking's (AACAT) Facilities Committee, which seeks to address the issue of housing juvenile victims of human trafficking in Bexar County. The coalition is comprised of federal, state, county and city law enforcement and governmental agencies and area non-profit organizations, including San Antonio Police Department (SAPD), the Bexar County District Attorney's Office – Human Trafficking Division and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).

The students 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 young human trafficking victims are placed each year.

The transition home would house victimized youth, such as internationally and domestically trafficked youth, runaways and "throwaway youth" or abandoned youth - terms used to describe children and teens abandoned by their parents - for up to 90 days. It would also house a variety of services and programming, such as legal counsel, social services and rehabilitation care. At the end of the semester, the committee would receive four concepts, fully conceived of and designed by the students, which can be used to secure future funding that could make the transition home a reality.

"As architects, we strive to do good in our community using our mastery of design and the built environment," said Pemberton. "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; each student handled separate aspects of the concept. The teams visited juvenile detention centers and halfway facilities throughout Texas to gather first-hand accounts and opinions from victims.

"Children and youth who are on the streets are at high risk of being trafficked for sex, using drugs and engaging in criminal behaviors," said Charles Paul, CPS special investigator with the Department of Family and Protective Services and liaison to the SAPD Major Crimes Division. He provided the teams with access to data on human trafficking in Texas. "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, Paul said, 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 said that 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 the 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," said 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."

The UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning is committed to excellence in education, scholarship and community engagement in the context of planning, design and construction of sustainable built environments. The major tenets of its educational philosophy are a desire to develop students into learned global citizens, ethics and professionalism, teaching the value of sustainability, diversity and multiculturalism, collaboration and leadership, and instilling in its students a drive for creativity, critical thinking and innovation. For more information, visit www.cacp.utsa.edu.

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