By Marissa Lang San Francisco Chronicle.
The customer hesitated for a moment at the window, studying the vintage yellow vest on display, as if trying to decipher what the small shop really was.
Regina Evans rose from the familial wooden table in the center of the store. She opened the door, and then her arms, wide. The customer, who had never been to the Oakland boutique, looked surprised. Evans squeezed.
There is no room for discomfort here.
Regina's Door does more than sell decades-old garb. It acts as a steppingstone for victims of human trafficking and forced sexual labor.
Evans employs survivors, women whose history and trauma can make it hard to get or hold down a job. In the past year, according to partner organization Love Never Fails, about eight women have been hired as retail interns -- learning the ins and outs of a small business.
To offer the interns a glimpse of what it takes to run the store, they're charged with doing a little bit of everything: They stock the shelves, sweep the floors, schedule appointments with customers, go on shopping trips with Evans, assemble the window display and balance the books.
"To have that kind of experience is huge," explained Vanessa Scott, founder and executive director of Love Never Fails, a faith-based antitrafficking group. "It shows them not only how to do something like this, but that they can. It's so empowering."
Retention is tough. On average, women in abusive relationships will return to their abusers seven to nine times before they leave for good, according to statistics frequently cited by domestic violence awareness groups.
For women who have been trafficked, that number balloons threefold, Scott said.
That's why it's important to start victims in an environment where someone understands.
Evans, 54, was herself a victim of sex trafficking -- a fact she's not shy about discussing with customers.
'We support survivors' When a woman recently asked whether the store was a consignment shop, Evans replied, "Vintage. But that's not all we do here: We support survivors who have been or are at risk of being trafficked."
Customers are often surprised to hear about Evans' past.
Evans was born in Oakland. Her parents were educated and upper-middle class. She graduated from UC Davis and went on to intern on Capitol Hill.
She experienced abuse and trauma at a young age, Evans said. It warped her understanding of what love means. It made her question her self-worth.
In her 20s, Evans said, she faced a personal crisis and decided a change of scenery would help, so she moved to England.
She lived there for a few years before she began to run short on cash. One day, she saw an advertisement in a phone booth for work as a dancer and decided to inquire.
What happened next is unclear to her even now.
An ocean away from her friends and family, Evans said, she began to become dependent on the men who ultimately coerced her into sex work. She was kidnapped, she said, and raped. The longer it went on, the more hope she lost.
"After a while, you just feel like you must have done something to deserve it and you don't deserve better," Evans said. "You begin to think that this is all that there is. You feel worthless."
Eventually, she found a way to leave England to start anew in Australia, where her then-boyfriend was from.
She founded her own business in Sydney -- a vintage store -- and began to gain national acclaim as the owner of one of the few shops there owned by a black woman.
Evans was featured in magazines. Her store was a hit.
Avoiding feelings But, she said, in the flurry of success, she shelved her own feelings and did not come to terms with her own trauma for years.
"It took me a long time to admit it myself," she said, folding her hands over her heart. "It took me a long time to say, 'I'm a survivor.' I just put it away. I buried it."
She returned to the United States when her father died in 2006.
When the economy crashed and the job market dried up, she said, she couldn't find steady work. She began spending nights sleeping in a church and a local theater where she worked part time.
One day, she was crying into her coffee at a cafe in Oakland when an older man approached her and began to pray.
"He looked at me and said, 'The good lord has heard your cries and seen your tears,'" she said. "And when he was done, he told me 'Your miracle is just around the corner.'"
Six years later, she opened Regina's Door -- right around the corner from that cafe.
Evans has since regarded the small storefront as a kind of miraculous salvation -- one that has given her a chance to start over and succeed in her hometown.
She wants to offer others that same chance.
"When you're coming out of that world, you need a soft place to land, to learn to breathe and live again," she said. "This gives them that. This gives them life skills and confidence that you need if you're going to make it in this world."
All trafficking victims who come to work at Regina's Door must first complete at least 40 hours of training, therapy and prep in conjunction with Love Never Fails. The group provides many of the interns with a mentor and housing, which, Scott said, can be pivotal to their success.
Because most interns work at the shop only about five hours a week -- at a rate of $10 per hour -- the group also offers stipends to help supplement time spent looking for full-time employment and attending classes.
Evans said she tries to encourage her interns to learn a new skill -- coding, driving, writing -- and gain exposure to the arts through museum trips and plays, which she pays them to attend as if they were working.
Helping others "More communities need Regina Evanses in their midst," said Benita Hopkins, director of education and community activism for Love Never Fails. "She's a social-change maker and a giver. She's always reaching out to help the next person. She's been so pivotal for our survivors."
Last year, about 3,598 U.S. sex trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, though experts estimate that many more go unreported.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 1 in 6 endangered runaways will become victims of forced sexual labor.
Evans, who also dabbles in writing plays and performing, presented parts of her play "52 Letters" at last weekend's Berkeley Festival of Ideas. The piece focuses on the idea that human trafficking is modern-day slavery.
"This is an abolitionist movement," Hopkins said. "All of us working together to set these captives free are abolitionists. Regina says it best in one of her plays: This is slavery of the same old smell."