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January declared Human Trafficking Awareness Month

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SAN DIEGO - The City Council Tuesday proclaimed January as "Human Trafficking Awareness Month" in San Diego.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the problem exists throughout the city, with the average age of victims being 16 years old.

"Our message is very clear to San Diegans who are impacted by this -- we're here for you, all of us are," Faulconer said. "And to the thousands of traffickers who are operating in neighborhoods near our schools and throughout the region, our message is also clear -- you will be held responsible."

City employees are wearing blue ribbons to demonstrate their willingness to help solve the problem, the mayor said.

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who sponsored the proclamation, said leaders of community groups have told her that simple awareness of the problem among the public is what they need most.

Awareness paid off recently when a driver for a Sacramento ride-hailing service heard passengers talking in the backseat of his vehicle and realized a girl was being trafficked for sex. He was able to contact authorities and the girl was rescued.

San Diego police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said collaboration between law enforcement and community groups has saved dozens of trafficking victims over the past year.

"Ignoring the problem only makes society more complicit in it," said City Attorney Mara Elliott, whose office runs a program for men arrested for soliciting that shows how prostitution is not a victimless crime.

City library Director Misty Jones said her department has also become involved, because employees have found trafficking victims sleeping in area libraries.

The proclamation cited a recent study by Point Loma Nazarene University and the University of San Diego that estimated 5,000 new sex trafficking victims a year in San Diego, which is listed as a "high-intensity child prostitution area" by the FBI, according to the document.

Trafficking victims and survivors can send a message to the BeFree textline at 233733 to connect with social service providers, city officials said.