The grief and joy of Sanctuary Night

The Franklinton nonprofit, which provides a place of retreat for women caught in the cycle of prostitution, hosts its annual fundraiser at 400 West Rich on Thursday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Women at Sanctuary NIght

Sanctuary Night started with a simple premise: to provide a space where, one night a week, women caught in the cycle of prostitution within Franklinton could find retreat.

“My cofounder, Heather [Mohrman], and I both live in the neighborhood, and we both served on the board of an organization called Lower Lights Ministries,” said Hannah Estabrook, executive director of Sanctuary Night, which launched as a three-month pilot program in September 2017 and will move into a new, full-time facility by the end of 2021. “And we would sit in that room, which is right on Sullivant Avenue, and we would see these women. … So we went to the CEO of Lower Lights and said, ‘You have a perfectly placed [facility]. Could we use the building a couple of hours a week and see if it’s useful for these women to provide food and coffee and some basic hygiene items?' And that was all it was in the beginning.”

Prior to helping create Sanctuary Night, Estabrook, a mental health counselor who knew some of the women from her previous role working in the court system, had familiarity with spaces such as Star House, a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness, but wasn't aware of anything focused solely on women caught up in the sex trade.

“So there was a lot of figuring it out as we went, and just getting feedback from the women,” said Estabrook, who is gearing up for Sanctuary Night’s annual fundraiser, dubbed Seat at the Table, which takes place at 400 West Rich on Thursday, Sept. 30. Money raised from the event will be used to fund the salaries of six new part-time employees, all survivors of the sex trade.

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The guidance offered by women has helped shape the organization from day one, but particularly as it readies for a move into its own facility at 1195 Sullivant Ave. in late 2021, influencing everything from construction decisions (there will be a full kitchen where the women can cook meals) to the hours, which will eventually stretch to 24/7 once staffing can accommodate the around-the-clock demands, likely some time in 2023.

“The 24/7 thing came up a lot [in conversation with the women],” Estabrook said. “There was one woman ... who said, ‘You can’t schedule our pain,’ meaning that the moment a person is going to need help, or needs to get out of a situation, isn’t necessarily going to be between 8 and 10 p.m. on a Monday. So the consistency of presence was a huge piece for us.”

The new building will also contain a health care clinic and provide access to drug and alcohol counseling, in addition to serving as a communal space where the women can gather to both celebrate and mourn as needed. 

Estabrook said the organization started to feel like less of a pilot program about two years ago, when lines started to form outside of Lower Lights prior to the weekly Monday drop-in. At the time, Estabrook was still working with the court system, which heightened her awareness that the best exit strategy for women caught in the cycle of prostitution was still via the criminal justice system. “And we strongly believe that women should have an option that doesn’t involve getting arrested,” she said.

Estabrook said this mission requires remaining present in the lives of the women, developing a bond so that there’s a comfort level once a person makes a decision to seek help, which is something that can’t be forced. “One thing that keeps women involved in [prostitution] is drug addiction, but the other thing is a called a ‘trauma bond,’ where the women are often connected, or ‘bonded,’ to the same person who is causing them harm, whether that’s a trafficker, an abusive partner or even a family member,” Estabrook said. “And having a connection, even if it’s toxic, is favorable to having no connection. … So what we’re doing by building those relationships is helping them to imagine, even if only a little bit, what life without this person could be like."

A rendering of the new Sanctuary Night facility scheduled to open on Sullivant Avenue later this year

When Estabrook started working with survivors of the sex trade, she said she was struck by the amount of grief carried by the women, some of whom had lost children or other family members, in addition to experiencing death on the street via overdose or even the murder of their "street sisters." Often, Estabrook said, moments of breakthrough arose when the women either confronted or let go of this grief, a process that could be transformative, even presenting in the way the women physically carried themselves.

While confronting this grief can make the work emotionally draining at times, Estabrook said it’s also filled with equal amounts of joy — an element that can be easily overlooked from the outside.

“We try to be a place that provides a full expression of humanity, and that means that there are definitely nights where it’s very sad, where you’re holding a vigil for someone who died,” she said. “But, oh, my goodness, we also have dance parties, and we had a prom dress-up night and we play bingo and there can just be so much joy in that space. These women are incredible and beautiful and hilarious. … Being around them also fills me up.”