(WVUE) - The city of New Orleans is about to become ground zero for a form of slavery that just won't go away.
Human traffickers, people who exploit others to make money, are arriving in large numbers, bringing women and even girls. They are young, vulnerable, and many share the same dark story.
"There are those girls who believe their trafficker is their lover, and they feel like they are in a business," said victims' advocate and shelter operator Beth Salcedo.
Some girls girls are as young as 13, lured by predators seeking profit.
An 18-year-old local girl, who we will call Sarah, appears to lead the life of a typical college freshman. In school with an off-campus apartment, she looks like she could be in a sorority. She says she gets none of the $1,500 a night her pimp earns off of her turning five tricks a night.
"I want to be out of it," she said.
Sarah said she's been trapped in "the life" for five years.
"I met my first boyfriend/pimp when I was 13," she said. "It's crazy. You've got people constantly threatening you, hitting you, punching you, guns held to your head."
A woman who we'll call Kate, now in New York, worked the streets of New Orleans five years ago.
"I was in Metairie, and the west bank," said Kate, who's now 27. She talks about becoming a prostitute at the age of 13. During those years, she said she had six pimps who gave her drugs, food and a place to live. Making up to $2,000 a night, she claims she saw little of the money.
"In the last two years of working with him, I would be getting abuse daily," she said. "He just pushed me to a point where I just wanted to hang myself."
It's not just the girls on the streets swept up in the sex trade. Mothers like a woman we're calling Jane are living a nightmare.
"When we moved, she got caught up with the wrong people," Jane said.
She has no idea, where her 16-year-old daughter is, and she scours the streets fearing the worst.
"My daughter told police she was out here prostituting, and she met some people who can help her get money, and it's been downhill ever since," Jane said.
Sarah, Kate, Jane's daughter - they're just a few examples of the dozens of teens and young women working in and around the city, according to a recent report out of Loyola. In fact, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center calls New Orleans "a significant source, transit and destination location for human trafficking." And the problem is about to get worse.
Beth Salcedo runs a privately funded home for human trafficking victims that gets minimal support money.
"What's going to happen Mardi Gras, [is] traffickers all over the country will bring their girls in to sell them wherever there's a group of people, and it will be a free-for-all," Salcedo said.
Experts say the problem is in plain sight, but few say anything. Young girls, often easy to spot, with pimps nearby.
"You have the taxi driver who doesn't say anything, you have a conglomerate of people," Salcedo said.
The women we spoke with all say they were victimized by traffickers or pimps after a troubled home life.
"My mom is recovering from heroin, my dad is in jail," said Kate.
"Most children don't run away to something, they run away from something," said Salcedo.
The pimps often also get the girls hooked on drugs to make them dependent.
"Being able to get high any time I wanted and not have to worry about whether I would have to sleep in a crack house," said Kate.
Worse yet, current victims are often used to lure others to the trade.
"If they see a girl they like, they ask us to go talk to them and ask them if ask them if they want to make money," Sarah said.
It is a vicious cycle - women trapped for years in a life they can't escape due in large part to a system that they say is indifferent to their plight. That means little or no state support, in many cases, for dozens of underage girls who are often arrested for prostitution and put back on the streets where their pimps await.
This is where Salcedo's shelter can offer a way out.
"The shelter is important because, number one, it provides a safe haven for the girls. They're in a criminal, violent industry," said Salcedo.
But shelter space is limited and now in jeopardy.
"We don't have any state funding, and that's what I'm reaching for. I want people to understand there is a home," said Salcedo.
Sarah and Kate say they would walk away if they had support.
"You don't want to start out like this. You've got to finish school. I'm 27, I've never had a real job in my life," said Kate.
Caught up in the life before finishing high school, their options are limited. Sarah's pimp recently gave her a few months off to get a diploma, but it was no ticket out.
"After I graduated, within two months I was back in the business worse than ever," Sarah said.
"Until we can stop johns and pick up traffickers, it's almost like picking up a sea shell. We've got that one, but how many more there are?" said Salcedo.
Without funding, Salcedo worries that her home will close, but she's optimistic about new leadership.
"My high expectation is that the new governor, John Bel Edwards, will be close to this," said Salcedo.
It is a problem as old as time.
"Any time you have a man willing to buy a girl, this business is going to continue," said Salcedo.
"Are you safe here?" we asked Sarah. "Not really," she said. "He knows where I live. He comes here often."
This week, Congress passed a new law requiring governments to notify one another when a human trafficker travels abroad. There are also laws on the books to provide financial assistance to victims, but advocates say those laws have little impact on what's occurring.
If you are a human trafficking victim, or if you know of one, you are asked to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888.