Sonia Bermonty, right, talks Friday with John and Linneah Lombard outside the Auburn Public Library. Bermonty, an advocate for homeless people, brought a tent for the married couple because the tent they lived in burned down. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Sonia Bermonty is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable faces in the Lewiston-Auburn area for her work with unhoused and homeless people.

Recently named recipient of the LA Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Heart of the Community Award, Bermonty has been working tirelessly in an unofficial capacity as an advocate. She calls her efforts “Operation You Matter” and after years of outreach to the homeless population, she’s on the cusp of making it an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Having been homeless herself for long periods in New York and Massachusetts, Bermonty immediately noticed the problem when she moved to the Lewiston area in 2016. With the fortune of having a roof over her head for years, she began reaching out to folks on the streets. Often spotted at the Big Apple on Main Street or in Kennedy Park in Lewiston, Bermonty has been bringing items to those in need and collecting donations for homeless individuals.

Bermonty’s dedication to helping homeless people is fed mostly from her own experiences, with much of her compassion coming from a place in her past she’s discussed with very few people until recently: sex trafficking. It’s a long-suppressed part of her history that resurfaced unexpectedly during and after the Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston. Bermonty was working at Geiger, a short distance from Schemengees Bar & Grille, when the shooting occurred. The initial news, social media photos and videos, and her own flight from the area conjured flashbacks to the events on the day she became a sex trafficking survivor.

Already feeling the need to open up about her experience, the shootings prompted Bermonty to publicly tell her story for the first time last month, hoping it helps in connecting with current victims and other survivors.



When Bermonty, a Queens native, took to the New York City streets as a teenager in the 1990s, she instantly found herself in an environment of chaos, but one of her choosing, she acknowledges. She slept on trains, often taking circuit trips to sleep for several hours, or on benches when it was safe, and she rarely knew where her next meal would come from. Why she left home is something she said she still cannot explain, but at 14 years old, she knew the only alternative to living on the streets was home and she knew she did not want to go back.

“I am trying to do for others what would have been a big help to me when I was in their situation,” says Sonia Bermonty, who was living on the streets of New York City when she was 14. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The Manhattan youth overnight shelter Covenant House became her home of sorts when another teen runaway recommended it to her as a place she would be safe from discovery as a runaway. Since overnight shelters force people out during daylight hours, Bermonty ended up running with a girl — known as “Pumpkin” on the streets — during the days and returning to the shelter for a place to rest her head.

Pumpkin knew the streets well and had a hustle for everything from getting food to finding a safe place to chill, Bermonty said. “She seemed like a really cool person.”

Pumpkin introduced Bermonty to her boyfriend, who went by the street name “Poison.” He drove around in a limousine, picking Pumpkin up during the days as he cruised the streets interacting with all kinds of people. Bermonty became a regular passenger on rides around the neighborhoods and boroughs of New York City.

When they would ride around Queens, Bermonty pointed out her neighborhood, the area where Poison said he also grew up. They would talk about the local scene, Poison pointing out areas he used to frequent and Bermonty would point out all the places she used to like hanging out in, where her grandmother or father or friends lived and where she went to school.

“I kind of laugh even though it’s not funny by any means. As an older person I realize these were red flags, but when you’re young, destitute and lived a sheltered life, you don’t see it,” Bermonty said. “I basically showed them my whole life without realizing what I was doing.”


With nothing to do, no one to turn to and nowhere to go, hanging out with Poison and Pumpkin was a daily affair, a welcome one for a teen girl who, at her core, needed positive attention. Poison doted on her at Pumpkin’s insistence.

One day, Poison picked the girls up and Pumpkin gave Bermonty some good news.

“’I talked to my boyfriend’s mother and you can stay with us.’”

Learning she would be living across the way in New Jersey where people from her old life wouldn’t find her was a weight off her shoulders, Bermonty said. “I was ecstatic about it.” Poison’s mother was saintly, cooking homemade Spanish meals and giving Bermonty a room to herself, she said. She was comfortable and finally felt a level of safety she hadn’t experienced in months on the streets.

“I would say that lasted for, I don’t know, not even a week before the meals stopped,” Bermonty said. “He just punched me in the face.”

Sonia Bermonty, left, gives Doris Harvey a hug Friday after bringing some clothes for Harvey. Bermonty advocates for the unhoused and recently created the nonprofit “Operation You Matter.” Harvey is homeless, but has found a couch to sleep on for the time being. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal



It’s around this point in the story, Bermonty said, where some of the few people she’s told suggest there must have been some opportunity to walk away. The problem, she said, is that there was no transition between the sense of family and friendship and the revelation of evil that the first beating and rape by Poison brought. The fear came so quickly and so absolutely that running didn’t register as a thought, she said.

“One minute it was this beautiful thing that was taking place like ‘Here, let’s go to Disney,’ and then he’s punching me in the face.”

Thinking Poison was taking her back to her room, after being beaten and raped, Bermonty was pushed past to another room where she discovered four other girls. Poison forced her to take a shower, to dress and told her she would be “going out.”

“And if you don’t go out, I’m going to beat you,” she recalls Poison saying. “And if you try to run away, I know where your mom lives. I know where your grandmother lives. I know where your best friends live. I know where you go to school.”

She dealt with shock and disbelief as she was rushed from a beating and rape, to a shower, getting dressed, a limo ride to a street corner, and the first john.

Throughout the day and night, Poison or one of his crew brought Bermonty out to known prostitution locations in Manhattan where she would be accompanied and under constant surveillance as she was thrust into the clutches of men who showed no prejudice to age, offered no comfort and, sometimes, no mercy.


“I don’t even know how many men I was with at the age of 14. A lot, and each time hoping that maybe one of them will save me.”

This became Bermonty’s life, day in and day out, for months.


In the beginning, one of the worst parts for Bermonty was knowing she and the other girls were reeled in not by Poison, but likely by Pumpkin.

Pumpkin is what pimps refer to as the “bottom bitch,” Bermonty explained, an essential role in pimp culture in which a woman or girl plays the part of the pimp’s girlfriend. The bottom bitch is allowed to pick out her own clothes, choose what she eats, recruits other girls for favors and shares a bed with her pimp. In Pumpkin’s case, Bermonty said, she was lonely and desperate for love, and it made her a prime target for absolute manipulation. She may have even believed she was Poison’s partner in crime even though she was being forced to work the streets with everyone else, Bermonty said.

Pumpkin seemed content with her situation while Bermonty and the other girls would cry and pray for release.


“I think, for her, just having someone that wanted her there, needed her there was a (draw). I think there’s like a big mind thing that happens to people.”

Even with Pumpkin’s guidance, understanding her place was a learn-on-the-job type of deal, Bermonty said. Making eye contact with a john was the first of many mistakes that awarded her with a beating, she said.

“There’s all these crazy rules. You become accustomed to not approaching anyone. Eye contact is now so huge for me as an adult. I don’t feel respected if you’re having a conversation with me and you can’t give me your eyes. That’s something that’s taken from you when you’re out on the streets. Because you’re not important.”

Whenever Bermonty thought she had all the rules down, she suddenly wasn’t following them. Poison always had a reason to beat, scream or rape. The rare interactions between all the girls— always about fear, food and the bathroom— would be met with wild accusations, usually escape.

“I know you girls are talking about how you’re gonna escape,” Poison would say while making one of the girls an example before the rest.

“He called us his ‘dirty whores,’” Bermonty said.



While a sinister sort of gratification and street credit seemed to be high motivators for Poison and others like him, it really came down to what many things do: money. If a girl didn’t bring back what Poison considered a good day’s work, they would be turned back out until he felt they had made enough money. Sometimes Poison or one of his crew would beat or rape girls before sending them back out fully expecting more “work” and income from it, she said.

There was no such thing as leaving, Bermonty said, even to use a bathroom. The girls were expected to work and when nature would call and a squat in the street meant potentially missing a john, they would be forced to hold it until they couldn’t anymore. Even changing clothes was a luxury the girls never saw while working— customers rarely complained considering what they were calling for.

Exhaustion and hunger was no reason to call it a day, either— you go to bed when and if you’re told you can, she said.

“There was no sympathy for the fact that you need to eat, that you cry and say you want to go back home, that you miss your family, that you’re just a little girl and just want to go home. I must have cried out so many things during this experience.”

It isn’t enough for traffickers to just physically break someone down, Bermonty said. They need to instill a terror so deep, for oneself and for loved ones, that they’re effectively petrified, unable to self-advocate. Essentially, the initial shock of the change persists. While everyday being homeless can feel like a month, every day under Poison’s thumb felt like three years, Bermonty said.


“It just feels like the day is so long. Every interaction is a rape and your life feels so — I don’t know how to put it in words. It’s just, it’s horrific.”

Bermonty was arrested several times for prostitution, with her thinking each time that “this was it” and she’d be able to escape. Since courtrooms in New York held night court with scant police presence, there would always be someone from Poison’s crew in the courtroom watching and listening. It was the 1990s, she said, and nobody asked why a 14-year-old was involved in prostitution and there were no resources offered to her.

Sonia Bermonty connects with someone in the homeless population that she is hoping to help Friday in Auburn. “This is my fifth time coming to Lewiston and Auburn since Monday,” said the homeless advocate who lives in the area. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


Bermonty would face many more challenges before finding anything resembling a normal life, but in the ensuing years, she told her story to few, and when bits and pieces of memories surfaced, she would push them away. Until Oct. 25, 2023.

On the evening of the October mass shooting in Lewiston, Bermonty was in the middle of a shift at her job at Geiger when she started seeing Facebook posts about the shooting down the street at Schemengees Bar & Grille.

“Police, guns, shouting, screaming and running — it brought it all back,” she said. “I just ran for dear life. Between the running, knowing people were just killed, seeing all the posts about screaming, and the videos— that’s what triggered me.”


The events of the last day as a sex trafficking victim flooded back and she couldn’t stop them.

The very last day under Poison’s control, Bermonty, Pumpkin and all the girls were greeted by a version of Poison they’d never seen. He came into the bedroom extremely agitated and ordered all the girls out and into the limousine, Bermonty said. They would not be going back into New York City as they always did, Poison told them — they would be staying in New Jersey.

“He was so angry he couldn’t bring us into the city. He blamed us, said we were taking his money and that if he couldn’t make the money he needed, he didn’t need us.”

After a long drive into a part of New Jersey none of the girls recognized, Poison pulled into the parking lot of a seedy motel in a mostly deserted area Bermonty described as “almost like the Bates Motel.” Poison parked, ordered the girls out, and took them to the back of the motel where there was an abandoned warehouse.

“You know why I brought you here? You see that (expletive) building? That’s where you’re dying today,” Bermonty vividly remembers Poison telling them.

Poison forced the girls into the warehouse, continuing his rant, and immediately lashed out, hitting and kicking them and swinging at them with anything he could get his hands on, Bermonty said. The weapon that stands out the most in her mind is a lever binder, a heavy steel handle with a short chain and hooks, which is used to secure loads to trucks. Bermonty, Pumpkin and the rest of the girls screamed, cried and begged.


“You keep screaming,” Poison said. “Nobody can hear you. Scream all you want, you’re still going to die.”

Then they heard the sound of sirens approaching. They looked at one another and ran. With Poison close behind, the girls made it to the hotel’s front parking lot where they met police cruisers, doors opening even before coming to a screeching halt. They drew their guns, saw the girls and Poison, and ordered everyone to the ground, Bermonty said. Despite the warnings, the girls continued running with no intention of stopping until they were in the officers’ arms. Everyone was thrown to the ground, crying, while trying to tell officers everything that had happened to them.

Later, when taking the girls’ reports, police learned where most of the girls came from and returned them to their homes.

“I just couldn’t. I come from a Christian family and I was just so ashamed. I didn’t know how to deal with that, so I just told them I had no family. Pumpkin, too, for whatever reason. They told us, ‘We’re going to put you in protective custody,’ and asked if we’d testify so they could put Poison in jail.”

Protective custody ended up being a juvenile detention center where life was only mildly better than what Bermonty had experienced at the hands of Poison and his crew, she said. While she and Pumpkin were waiting for a quick resolution in court, they were forced to live and interact with violent offenders and troublemakers, the likes of which they could usually avoid on the streets.

Doris Harvey holds up a sweatshirt given to her Friday by Sonia Bermonty in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Bermonty and Pumpkin were waiting to testify against Poison when center officials unexpectedly asked them where they would be going when let out of the detention center. The promise that police would “put Poison away” echoed in their minds as they decided how they would play out their new situation.


Pumpkin told authorities she was from the Boston area, but had no place to go, so authorities placed her in a shelter in the Boston area. Bermonty stuck to her story of having no family or home to return to in New York City, so they granted her request to go to Boston with Pumpkin.

Never given the chance to testify against Poison, Bermonty said for all she knows, he walked free in exchange for information about New Jersey and New York’s “bigger fish.”

“But Poison is a big fish, right?” Bermonty said. “He ruined all of our lives, five lives, and how many people’s lives before us? Who knows how many lives after us and who knows how many people may have done the same exact thing he was doing. We have this, when it comes to the government, ‘bigger fish’ mentality and we really need to stop that. It’s great to get them, but the little people we’re ignoring are still giving drugs to our children, they’re raping people, killing people. … What do we have laws and governments for?”


Expecting a break from life on the streets, sex trafficking and the juvenile detention center, Bermonty was disappointed that the home in Boston was also toxic. The two girls were treated almost like Cinderella by the people who took them in, she said. They were given new names and faced corporal punishment. Pumpkin ran away almost immediately, and shortly after, Bermonty followed.

Bermonty never saw or spoke to Pumpkin again.


Still determined to make it on her own, Bermonty once again found herself homeless, experienced attacks and rapes, and continued living a life no better than what she’d had since leaving home. However, she eventually made new, more stable friends, one a girl in Roxbury, Massachusetts, who was accepted into Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

“You should come with me,” the girl offered. “It’s OK, I can sneak you into my room.”

Bermonty took her friend up on her offer and met her first husband in Amherst. It was bliss, she said, until she became pregnant and he hit her for the first time. That’s how things remained for 10 years before she divorced, remarried and found herself in the same situation for another six years.

Her life took a turn for the better around 2010 when she went to church, where she said she “was saved,” and encountered supportive parishioners who were able to convince her to leave her second husband. Through the spiritual, emotional and financial support of her church, Bermonty could afford to step back and finish college while dealing with a divorce that threatened her already delicate living situation.

“There’ve been struggles for sure, there have been challenges, but my life has definitely been blessed since that point.”

After taking remedial courses, Bermonty graduated from Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in 2015 with honors, on the president’s list and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She also rekindled an old flame who brought with him every ounce of support and sacrifice a person expects out of a good partner, she said. Bermonty and her husband, Eddie, have been together since just a couple months after her graduation. In 2016, the couple took a chance on a spur-of-the-moment move to the Lewiston area when they visited Bermonty’s cousin.


Sonia Bermonty finds that her two dogs, Remy, pictured, and SonE are a good way to connect with the homeless population. People that may not communicate with the homeless advocate sometimes do when her dogs come with her. “Little by little, people open up when playing with them,” she says. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


Bermonty faced her past just once in a big way before Oct. 25. She received a call in September 2021 from New York State Police and was told her name came up in a cold case file.

“We have you down for prostitution at (14 years old),” said the police officer.

“I thought I left all that behind, and all that (expletive) came back,” Bermonty said. “As soon as they said ‘prostitution,’ all my emotions, the memories of being homeless, all the rapes, everything was instantly in my head.”

The officer passed Bermonty to a female officer when the line of questioning became too much. The officer ran down a list of names asking if she knew any of the people. It turned out that while she was being trafficked all over Manhattan, there was a serial murderer targeting young prostitutes throughout the city.

“Now I’m here with the cold reality of, on top of everything that I went through, some more (expletive) could have happened to me out there?” Bermonty said. … “(It) was like it was yesterday because of a call.”


At that moment, Bermonty knew she needed to help others who needed help or who may find themselves in the same situation she had faced.

In April, Bermonty filed the paperwork creating her nonprofit Operation You Matter. The goal is to provide essentials to homeless and unhoused populations, everything from clothes and food for those still living on the streets, to pots and pans for the soon-to-be housed. Bermonty also works with other advocates to provide laundry vouchers for homeless people.

In collaboration with Women’s Wisdom Center, Operation You Matter also has an upcoming project series at the L/A Art Walks called Rising Women’s Clothesline, a growing installation of messages from women sharing the things they’ve overcome in their lives. The installation will premier June 28 at Chill Yoga at 182 Lisbon St.

“I can’t list everything we — me and my husband, Eddie — provide. It’s all just so much,” Bermonty said. “Operation You Matter’s mission is to let people know that they’re seen, they’re heard, that they matter regardless of whatever their situation is, whatever they’re struggling with, wherever they come from. Everyone matters to me. My goal is to make sure everyone I interact with knows that they matter.”


As part of her work on the streets in Lewiston, Bermonty began hearing talk of sex trafficking in Maine. Many of the advocates and homeless people she encountered during her day-to-day outreach assured her the problem was real.


“Then I saw it for myself,” she said. “It’s happening right here in Lewiston.”

It broke her heart, she said.

Part of the impetus to now tell her story is to better relate to victims so she can help them. She acknowledged that when she has interacted with women who show signs of being sex trafficked, most avoid the subject or outright deny their situation.

Bermonty said it’s understandable that victims wouldn’t take her concern, her advice or her offers of help seriously without knowing what she’s gone through, without knowing her story first.

Telling her story also means her history no longer has control over her, she said, and it puts her in a better place to help others take control back for themselves.

“I haven’t been able to share with them (that) I’ve been them, and I think that’s a huge piece. … I want to fight for the many. I don’t want people to go through what I went through and I’m afraid that they are. (And) if no one is willing to speak on these issues, change may not happen ever.”

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