Cassandra Diamond knows what it's like to be one the statistics behind sex trafficking in Canada.
Diamond, who was lured into the underworld of the sex trade at 18, is now an advisory member of a $10-million fundraising campaign launched by Covenant House Wednesday.
The agency will open a transitional housing program in the spring that will provide housing and support services for victims of sex trafficking, executive director Bruce Rivers said. Those services will include addiction and trauma counseling, court support and life-skills training.
Diamond said she's convinced Covenant House's new initiatives to combat trafficking will give more victims "a better chance at reclaiming their lives.
"I know from my own experience that there's a tremendous need for more services for trafficked persons," she told the media Wednesday. "I managed to leave my situation on my own but I needed counselling and had to get that myself."
Diamond, who spent 10 years in the sex trade, spoke passionately about how she was victimized and how prevalent trafficking is in Toronto.
"This is a problem here, this is a problem now," she said. "Young girls who I talk to every day are getting lured off the internet from inside their own homes. This is not somebody who's out on the street."
Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins of the Sex Crimes unit dispelled the perception that sex trafficking is just an international problem.
Victims as young as 13
"It's a problem across Canada and specifically here in Toronto," she said at the campaign launch. "Victims as young as 13 are being forced to work in the sex trade. They're being coerced, they're being beaten, they're being sold by pimps to other pimps across Canada. The ordeals these girls face on a daily basis are unimaginable."
Beaven-Desjardins said that her unit "has investigated 319 occurrences, arrested over 120 pimps and laid 820 charges" in Toronto over the last two years. Although sex trafficking has been in the criminal code since 2005, the first conviction in Toronto didn't come until 2014, she said.
Beaven-Desjardins explained the challenges police face in convicting predators.
"When you traffic drugs, the drugs are evidence," she said. "When you traffic people, the victims are the evidence. If they don't have the support they need to feel strong and able to testify against their former pimps, then it's often difficult to put a solid case together."
Rivers said Covenant House has raised nearly $6.5 million in the last six months.
"That feat is incredible but it speaks to how compelling this issue is," he said.