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Creating a Haven for Young Trafficking Victims in Toronto

We at Covenant House worked closely with the two young survivors at the heart of Toronto's first criminal prosecution to lead to a sex trafficking conviction. Working with these young people fueled our determination to expand our efforts to help youth escape the chains of modern trafficking.

So you can understand why we are tremendously excited to announce we will be opening a transitional housing program designed especially for sex-trafficking survivors in Toronto early next year, as another critical step in our work to fight the human trafficking of homeless youth. The residential program, whose location will remain confidential to protect the residents, is a broad partnership with Toronto Community Housing, the city's housing authority; the municipal government; the police; and the Women's Initiatives Committee of The Rotary Club of Toronto, which played a leading role in bringing the project to fruition. The seven youth, ages 16 to 24, who will call this place home for up to two-years will know that a wide swath of the community cares about them and their futures.

The opening of the house early next year in Toronto will follow shortly after we open Aspire House in New York City, a ten-bed therapeutic home for young trafficking survivors, in connection with the LifeWay Network, thanks to a $1-million anonymous grant.

Our new homes for trafficking survivors in Toronto and New York City will share much in common with our other specialized programs for young trafficking survivors in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. We are taking a similarly broad-brush approach to our anti-trafficking work overall, gathering a large number of partners together to prevent and prosecute the forced sexual exploitation of young people, often but not always girls, and to give survivors the care they need. Our new housing programs in Toronto and New York City are only one piece of our overall work.

Sex trafficking in Canada, like in the United States, is a poorly understood but serious problem. In a survey by Covenant House Toronto, we determined that most Ontarians are unaware of the extent of the issue. Many people believe the most common victims are trafficked internationally; in fact, an estimated 71 percent of trafficking victims in Canada are Canadian citizens.

Homeless young people are particularly vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. "We estimate that as many as 1,000 of our youth are involved in some form of the sex trade annually, mostly trading sex for survival," said Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House Toronto, which served almost 3,000 young people last year. "Their desperation makes them highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation for profit."

While data can be hard to come by, it is estimated that 30 percent of homeless youth in Canada have been involved in some form of the sex trade, often as a strategy for survival. A 2013 study by Fordham University and Covenant House New York showed that of about 200 randomly selected young people at the shelter, almost a quarter had been trafficked or participated in survival sex, undertaken in exchange for something of value like food and shelter. About half said they could have avoided this fate if they had only had a safe place to stay. A second study, focused on homeless youth in New Orleans, will be released shortly, and gives us no cause for relief.

We know pimps often search out and prey on young people who lack shelter and familial support. Such kids, like the ones we see every day, are particularly vulnerable to a sweet-talking guy who pretends to be a boyfriend, but turns out to be an exploiter.

In Toronto we will focus many of our efforts on prevention and early intervention, to help increase awareness of the problem and to reduce its scope. We will help people understand the potential danger of sexual predators, signs that someone may be trafficked, and how to take action.

"We know that homeless youth are targeted by predators, and we also know that unsuspecting young girls in schools, malls and online are also lured into this kind of sex slavery," Mr. Rivers said.

We also plan to offer anti-trafficking trainings to shelter workers; staff at businesses like motels that may interact with trafficking victims; medical professionals, who often help them in emergency rooms; and city workers, to help them recognize and help young people who are trafficked.

As part of our crisis intervention plans, we plan to put together an outreach program to make contact with trafficking victims and provide a network of services to them, including safe beds and referrals to legal and medical services. Program residents will receive transformational support, including trauma and addiction counselling, life skills training and educational and vocational support through Covenant House and partner agencies. Free legal assistance will also be available from the firm of Baker & McKenzie for young people in Toronto.

We will never win the war against the human trafficking of children and youth until we first embrace and win the fight against youth homelessness. As long as our subways, bus terminals, abandoned buildings and malls continue to shelter youth with nowhere else to turn, pimps and predators will have an ample supply of desperate youth.

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