Former Tustin PD officer finds ideal new career helping homeless, victims of human trafficking
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In her 23-year career as a police officer, eight with the Los Angeles PD and 15 at the Tustin PD, including three years as a reserve officer, Melissa Trahan made a point of trying to figure out what makes people tick – for example, how someone falls into drug addiction, or homelessness, or becomes a prostitute.
“I would like to think that I handled things a little bit differently because I always wanted to know people’s back stories,” says Trahan, whose career in law enforcement ended earlier this year due to job-related injuries to her hands and left knee.
“They weren’t just a name or a number to me,” she says. “I always took the time to get to know people a little bit, and I always showed them respect.”
Trahan’s compassion is serving her well in her new career – one she never planned on having, but one she’s completely embracing.
Her new job began this Aug. 1 with her working the front desk, like a young adult embarking on her first job.
Trahan wears a Tree of Life necklace, whose meaning typically is associated with knowledge, wisdom, and an insight into one’s self.
For Trahan, a single mother of two daughters ages 17 and 18, the necklace also symbolizes new beginnings – a theme she addresses daily in her new job at the Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) in Tustin.
Fittingly, OCRM staff members refer to the men, women and children who live in the 262-bed shelter as students, since they’re on a mission to learn how to rewire themselves to live safe, healthy, and productive lives on their own.
Most have spent time living on the streets. Many have battled addictions or escaped domestic violence. Some are victims of human trafficking.
For Trahan, all deserve help and second chances – just like the countless people she encountered during her career as a police officer, most recently as a Community Impact Officer (CIO) at the Tustin PD.
Trahan spent her final five years at the TPD as a CIO. In that role, she not only conducted outreach with the homeless, but also tackled a host of community issues, from neighbor disputes to business conflicts, and worked with such city departments as code enforcement and adult protective services.
“I built relationships with so many people, and I made a lot of connections with community members,” says Trahan, who also served as an SRO (School Resource Officer) at Tustin High School for three years, in addition to working patrol and other assignments.
Such connections included Jim Palmer, president of the OCRM, the faith-based, privately run and financed non-profit organization that has expanded to 14 campuses in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.
Trahan got to know the OCRM well as a police officer. She helped place several homeless people into its program, which starts with a 30-day ban on all things digital (cell phone, computer, etc.) and 40 hours a week of doing on-site volunteer work.
The OCRM program is designed to model an academic or university setting. People who live at OCRM begin as freshmen and advance to sophomore, junior and senior levels until they eventually graduate from the program.
Each student has an individualized treatment plan, so there’s no set time frame for each class level. The further along students go in the program, the more privileges they get; for example, those who reach the junior phase can have a cell phone.
“I knew this place was something special,” Trahan says. “I felt a connection.”
In February 2017, Trahan had to take off work at the TPD for an extended period of time due to her injuries.
“During the fall of 2017,” she recalls, “I was getting depressed because I was off work recovering from multiple surgeries with my hands and knee so I reached out to Jim and asked if I could volunteer while I was still recovering from my surgeries.”
“Absolutely,” Palmer told her.
At the time, Trahan didn’t know she was going to be medically retired. She still was hopeful she would be able to return to police work.
Trahan began by driving the OCRM’s chili van, which feeds the homeless.
When, in July 2018, Trahan knew she was going to be medically retired from the TPD, she asked Palmer if she could work full time at the OCRM.
“It occurred to me that I wanted to become part of this organization,” Trahan said.
Of course, Palmer told her – but there were no immediate full-time positions for someone of her experience and expertise.
So Trahan began her new career at the OCRM on Aug. 1, working the front desk.
Three weeks later, she was tapped to help run a new program at the OCRM called Strong Beginnings. Launched in May, the program provides assistance to women escaping human trafficking in Orange County as well as surrounding counties.
In addition to being a case manager assistant of Strong Beginnings, Trahan is a case manager for Hope Family Housing, the OCRM’s transitional housing program for homeless men, women and children in large families.
She also continues to put in eight hours a week working the front desk at the OCRM.
“She was very well known to us as a police officer with real leadership in this area,” Palmer said of hiring Trahan. “Her heart is really in her work, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes.”
For example, Trahan recently drove a student of the OCRM all the way to Lancaster so she could visit her 4-year-old who lives with a foster family. And sometimes she’s tapped to drive women to a weekly human trafficking class in Long Beach called Gems Uncovered.
Once a month, Trahan also spends a few hours after midnight on the streets of Santa Ana doing direct outreach to women forced into sex trafficking.
In that effort, Strong Beginnings works with partners including Lives Worth Saving, Trinity Law School, the Hurtt Family Health Care Clinics, as well as county, religious and law enforcement agencies, to get women into the handful of free beds the OCRM provides for victims of human trafficking.
“There’s one young lady here who got picked up by a pimp in Arizona who brought her to Orange County,” Trahan says. “She’s 18 years old, and she wanted to leave the first night because she was alone, scared, and in a place she wasn’t familiar with.”
Trahan already had gone home that day when she got an email that night from the front desk of the OCRM.
The young woman was able to get her hands on a phone without supervision – students only are allowed phone calls under supervision for the first 30 days — and told staff members she was calling a cousin to pick her up.
Trahan knew the woman had no family in O.C.
She got on the phone and talked the woman into waiting until the morning to decide what to do.
“I did a one-on-one meeting with her (the next morning) and spent about an hour talking to her about things, just trying to change her thinking and to get her to realize that she can start making decisions for herself,” Trahan says.
More than a month later, the 18-year-old remains in the Strong Beginnings program, and is determined to see it through.
Such success stories keep Trahan and her partner in Strong Beginnings, Samantha Eitner, motivated to continue to shape the program to make it as effective as possible.
“She brings a skill set and a tremendous amount of experience literally working behind the badge to now operate in front of the badge to help Orange County’s high-need population,” Palmer says of Trahan.
The former police officer, who served as a medic in the Air Force for four years, recalls helping with “sting” operations at the TPD and posing as a prostitute to bust “Johns,” an experience that changed her view of women who work “The Life” or “The Game,” as it’s known in street lingo.
“When I worked patrol and would come across prostitutes, I stopped looking at them as suspects and more as victims,” Trahan says. “Most of these women don’t choose to do what they do. After building a rapport with them, they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, yeah, this isn’t what I want for my life.’”
Reflecting on her 23 years as a police officer, Trahan realizes she found the perfect next career.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I look back on my career as an officer, my work always seemed to revolve around really serving and helping people.”
For Trahan, that calling continues.
A few weeks ago, during street outreach on a Friday night, Trahan struck up a conversation with a woman working the streets.
“I offered her a free handmade bracelet with a poem,” Trahan recalls. “We made a connection with our brief encounter before her pimp drove by, intimidating her. So she walked away.”
Before the woman left, she took down the hotline number Trahan provided her.
“I saw her again later in the early hours, and she yelled out to me saying she was going to call me.”
That Sunday night, the woman did just that.
“She said her pimp took all of her personal belongings and clothes,” Trahan recalls. “She said she was done and wanted to get out of ‘The Life.’”
It took some coordination with Lives Worth Saving, but Trahan was able to help put a team together and pick the woman up at a transportation center in Norwalk.
Says Trahan: “She still wears the bracelet I gave her.”
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