CLEVELAND -- Hue Jackson knew the foundation he set up in 2017 to help victims of human trafficking would be buoyed by his stature as coach of the Cleveland Browns.
But shortly after the foundation joined the Salvation Army for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a 12-bed residence near downtown Cleveland, the Browns fired Jackson on Oct. 29, 2018.
That decision has affected the foundation, but not Jackson's commitment. From digging into his own pockets to visiting with one of the survivors at the residence, the coach's involvement with the Hue Jackson Foundation has remained steadfast.
"This is something we're committed to and it's dear and near to us," Jackson said during a recent interview at his home on Cleveland's east side, with his wife, Michelle, sitting at his side. "We're going to continue to fight this battle."
The facility, which is named after the coach, opened July 16, 2018. Less than a year later, it has provided 1,100 nights of service (seven women with beds provided in one night is seven nights of service), and Jackson recently was notified by Harvard University that it will honor him with its 2019 Global Health Catalyst Mental Humanitarian Award on May 25 at a banquet in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
UNICEF calls human trafficking the second-largest criminal industry in the world, with more than $30 billion generated by the movement and trade of human beings. Fighting against human trafficking is a noble, yet underserved cause; the facility in The Salvation Army's Harbor Light Complex is the largest of its kind in the Cleveland area.
On the day the facility opened, Jackson spoke passionately about how difficult it is for a parent not to have answers and how he hoped the residence would give survivors a place to renew and restart. Just more than three months later, Jackson was fired by the Browns. Much of his "new" life is spent working with the foundation for the success of the facility, where women who were manipulated into the sex trade industry try to recover.
It's a challenge that won't be easy for a deposed coach who has been the object of ridicule by many in Cleveland over his losing record with the Browns. How does a man raise significant funds when he no longer carries the cachet of being the NFL coach in town?
“For him to continue to fulfill his commitment shows what kind of a man that he is, even after he's been pretty much dissed by the city," said John Morgan, a detective in the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department and a member of the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. "Those people who are saying stuff about him really don't know him, and if they knew him they wouldn't say it about him."
The foundation is tied up in a maelstrom of emotions Jackson has dealt with since losing his job in October with a 3-36-1 record over 2½ seasons. About two weeks later, he joined the Cincinnati Bengals as a special assistant for the season's final seven games, much to the chagrin of some with the Browns. When Marvin Lewis was fired as Cincinnati's head coach, Jackson interviewed for his good friend's former position; Cincinnati hired Zac Taylor instead. Jackson also interviewed to be the offensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals but was not hired.
Jackson is not coaching for the first time in 32 years -- "I've never had down time" -- and he has spent time reflecting while staying as involved as he can with the game. He spoke at a clinic at Penn State and has kept in touch with other friends in the business.
"But I don't think anybody understands the human side of these things," Jackson said. "I think people think, 'OK, the guy's gone and you go on.' It's hurtful. It's painful. But you have to find a way to channel that."
Part of that channeling has been the foundation -- working constantly and speaking every day with Kimberly Diemert, its executive director. Jackson and his wife have used their own money to fund the day-to-day work of the foundation. Harbor Light executive director Beau Hill said the foundation provided $250,000 to build the residence and committed to its continued support. Jackson recently spent time at the facility, where the residents' privacy and identities are zealously protected. Jackson was able to visit with a survivor, and it brought a sense of pride -- along with many other emotions.
"Obviously, not being part of the Browns hurt the foundation, it really did," Jackson said. "But I wasn't going to bat an eye at that. People can't separate the two -- football and life. So be it. I'm going to continue to pull this rope."
Hill calls the residence "an answer to prayer." A key benefit of putting the residence where it is: The Salvation Army already had a detox facility.
"Before this was open," Morgan said, "we had victims ... we'd be at the hospital with someone and we were like, 'Where are we going to take them?' Literally. The whole time before this happened, we were racking our brains about who to call."
Keeping the work going has its challenges. Hill said the residence requires $500,000 annually in funding; the Salvation Army operates totally on donations, some of which are used for the residence's operating expenses. Two fundraising events Jackson had planned for last November at the Browns' facility had to be canceled after he was let go, and Jackson concedes people might not be as willing to take his calls now that he is not the coach of the Browns.
"Obviously, not being part of the Browns hurt the foundation, it really did. But I wasn't going to bat an eye at that. People can't separate the two -- football and life. So be it. I'm going to continue to pull this rope." Hue Jackson
"It needs money, it needs more resources, more help, more staffing, in order to handle the problem," Jackson said. "There is no other facility like this in Cleveland at this time. I want it to be bigger and better. But in order to do that, you have to pay for it.
"I know that phone call might not get answered at the same pace as it would if I were coaching somewhere."
Since the Hue Jackson Foundation Survivors of Human Trafficking Residence opened, more than 30 survivors have been cared for. Measuring success is difficult because residents come and go at their pace, and some leave and return. To Hill, the best measure is nights of service.
"Sometimes, it really is just about getting someone to stay in our program and be safe for a length of time," said Michelle Grabowski, the social worker in charge at the residence.
Hill talked about a woman who was so reluctant to walk inside, she stayed on the streets in the winter during the polar vortex, when temperatures barely reached zero. Eventually, she walked in on her own.
"She had that safe, secure space," Hill said. "Talk about a reward."
Morgan said law enforcement "recovered" one woman five times, bringing her to the facility each time. She eventually completed the program but died from an overdose after leaving.
"She had been doing really well," Hill said. "And that's the problem when it comes to addiction and heroin and things like that. People can be doing very well and they can be doing very well for six months, five years. But if something gets hold of them, they will use the amount [of drugs] that they used prior to being in recovery.
"Unfortunately with heroin or opioids, that can be your last choice."
Morgan said it's vital to recognize that not every ending is happy because it illustrates the scope of the problem. Notes and emails seeking the foundation's help for relatives have come from across the country.
"You have to battle every component that's affected these individuals mentally and emotionally, and there's so much of it," Diemert said. "It's not just the drugs. It's not just the trafficking. What was the life crisis that put them into that situation? Were they sexually assaulted? Were they runaways? Did they have mental health issues?"
Women are referred to the facility by the Rape Crisis Center, the FBI or the county task force. At the residence, women who had been controlled and abused can find a safe space with a living room and TV, a clean shower and kitchen with eating area. A full-time staff is on duty 24 hours per day.
The respite alone is significant; a day spent at an off-site nail salon matters. The hope is that by the time a survivor is released, she has gained enough self-worth to navigate life's daily challenges.
"There was a lot of uncertainty before about where they would go," Morgan said. "They were uncertain where their next meal would come from and who would help them get their driver's license or social security card back. It was easier to go back to the pimp."
Jackson said he got involved because he and his wife had personal experience with the issue, but he declined to go into details. Major sports events often are targeted by traffickers. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety announced recently that 58 individuals had been arrested at the NCAA basketball tournament's Final Four as part of a sex trafficking operation, and 47 were charged with soliciting a minor. Twenty-eight individuals -- including one minor -- were rescued. At the Super Bowl in Atlanta, 169 were arrested in a similar sting.
Jackson said it was humbling to be honored by Harvard. Past winners of the Global Health Catalyst Mental Humanitarian Award include former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo (for his charity work in the Congo); Ed Benz, the former head of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; and Dr. Arikana Chihombori, the African Union Ambassador to the United States.
The coach who was raised in South Central Los Angeles and fired by the Browns because he didn't win enough will be part of a panel at Harvard Medical School's Global Health Catalyst Summit the weekend the award is presented.
"People process the losses," Jackson said. "They see the coach who lost a lot of games, not human trafficking. If it wasn't the Hue Jackson Foundation, it might be in a better situation, but I'm not going to change the name because people [might] want me to. I'm not doing that.
"You go through a lot in life. This was a process. This was part of the process. And part of the process was starting this foundation, and it's here, and this is where it's going to stay."