By Edgar Mendez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Apr 07, 2024 at 5:56 PM

Women who come to Inner Beauty Center, a South Side nonprofit that supports sexually exploited women, have a variety of urgent needs, said Deanne Lawson, its founder and executive director.

“They’ll get clothing, a meal, personal care items, bus tickets. It really varies,” Lawson said. “We give them those sorts of gifts and emotional support, so they’re ready to take that next step to get help.”

Those services could expand soon thanks to a $100,000 grant from the City of Milwaukee. The funds, Lawson said, will help the center increase staffing, expand services and potentially relocate.

“We can have showers and maybe a washer and dryer,” she said. “Eventually we’d like to provide legal services or even housing.”

A place for women "to feel human again"

The drop-in center, located at 1300 S. Layton Blvd., provides a place for women, who are often victims of human trafficking or other types of abuse, to feel human again, Lawson said.

Lawson and others also conduct street outreach, providing dignity bags filled with self-care items, information on substance abuse programs, other services and bag lunches.

Last year, they made contacts with over 900 women, Lawson said.

Travis Hope, neighborhood organizer in District 2 for Safe & Sound, remembers one of them. He was part of a team that was doing street outreach on Greenfield Avenue when a woman ran toward them screaming.

“She was a street worker and some guy had just beat her up,” Hope said.

They called Lawson.

“Deanne came and spent time talking to her, gave her lunch and waited with her until she was safe,” Hope said.

Helping them "multiply their efforts"

Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa, who represents the Clarke Square neighborhood where Inner Beauty Center is located, said the organization’s work has been crucial.

“They’re a great nonprofit helping to get women and girls out of the sex trade,” she said.

Zamarripa, who helped Lawson secure the funds with support from Common Council President Jose Perez, said the city has major issues with sex trafficking on the near South Side and the North Side.

Last year, there were 35 human trafficking offenses reported by the Milwaukee Police Department, nearly all of which occurred on the North or South sides, though the city’s crime reporting portal doesn’t include data for sex crimes such as prostitution.

“It’s heartbreaking but with limited resources we have only been able to do so much, which is why it’s great to support organizations like the Inner Beauty Center and help them multiply their efforts,” Zamarripa said. 

Tackling sexual exploitation

While thankful for the influx of funds, Lawson said combating sexual exploitation of women is an uphill fight.

“The situation is really bad right now for the women,” she said.

“The combinations of drugs being used are always changing and becoming more and more dangerous, and people are really struggling,” said Lawson, adding that many of the women she helps are addicted to fentanyl and Xylazine, known on the streets as “Tranq.” 

According to data provided by Karen Domagalski, operations manager for the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, 130 individuals died in 2023 from a combination of fentanyl and Xylazine. Thirty-nine were women.

Greater community awareness

Lawson said one thing that has improved is community awareness around the challenges the women her organization serves face.

“I think more people understand that the women don’t want to be in the situation they’re in,” Lawson said.

Araceli Arevalo, Neighborhood Safety Coordinator in District 2 for Safe & Sound, credits Lawson and her team with creating a shift in attitudes toward the women.

“They come to community meetings and help to humanize the issue,” Arevalo said. “These are people in very tragic situations who need help.”

With additional support from the city, Lawson hopes to provide even more help now.

“There’s so much work to do,” she said. “We know that many of the women want to turn around their lives but need help and we want to be there for them.”

These organizations serve victims of human and sexual trafficking:

Edgar Mendez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
Edgar Mendez is a beat reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, covering Clarke Square, the neighborhood in which he lives. Prior to joining the team at NNS he was a feature writer for El Conquistador Newspaper in Milwaukee, and a web writer/reporter for in Racine.

Mendez, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, graduated from UW-Milwaukee, with a double major in Journalism and Media Communications and Sociology. In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists' regional award for social columns dealing with diverse issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. Currently, he's a master's degree student at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

His interests include scholastic research, social networking and the Green Bay Packers.