An Vote Tomorrow to Keep Kids Safe

Homeless young people strive to remain invisible, knowing that if they look like they don't have a safe place to sleep at night, they can be exploited by the forces of the street -- pimps, thieves, criminals who want to recruit them, violent people who want to harm them just because they can. The traps set for homeless kids are invisible as well, usually made to look like something else.

If we want to keep the kids we serve at Covenant House safe, we need to know how to recognize these camouflaged traps. My colleague Jim Kelly is fighting one such trap in New Orleans, where he runs our local Covenant House. I believe the issue is worth taking on across the country and beyond.

To many homeless young people, particularly girls, young women and transgender persons, strip clubs can seem to be the only job readily available. Compared to legitimate workplaces, such clubs are less likely to care if you have a permanent address or a valid way to prove you're of age. They don't care if you graduated high school. Most just care about what you look like and what you're willing to do.

Thanks to our recent report with Loyola University, we know that at least 10 percent of the young people we shelter in New Orleans have worked in a strip club, which would amount to about 70 young people a year out of the shelter's annual population. More than half of those who worked in strip clubs had either participated in prostitution or in survival sex, exchanging sex for something of value, often food or a place to stay.

Frequently, however, exotic dancing is at the top of a slippery slope into forced prostitution. Several of the young people we shelter have told us that after they started working as exotic dancers, they were recruited by pimps, or were told that the only way they could make a profit, after paying for the privilege of dancing, was by working in "VIP Rooms," where they were required to have sex with customers. One girl told our researchers that the club owners didn't care that she was 16 when they hired her.

When Jasilas Wright, a 19-year-old who worked at two Bourbon Street strip clubs, was found dead on Interstate 10 in June, having jumped or been pushed from the car of a man authorities said had pimped her, it drew the attention of police and policy makers to the strip club scene.

Ms. Wright's death spurred police and the state's Alcohol and Tobacco Control Office to conduct a month-long sting operation, which showed numerous instances of prostitution, drug offenses, and lewd conduct at the city's clubs. A law enforcement team found offenses in nine clubs, at a time they knew they were under increased scrutiny, Mr. Kelly said. In November, 14 more clubs outside the city were busted for similar offenses.

"Strip clubs in New Orleans, and I believe elsewhere, are one of the main avenues in which young people get caught up in human trafficking," according to Mr. Kelly, who is not new to the fight to shine a light on the underbelly of exotic dancing establishments. Twenty-eight years ago, after he helped found Covenant House New Orleans, he was instrumental in promoting a local law that required strippers to be at least 21.

That law passed, but has not been enforced adequately. We're very pleased that a New Orleans ordinance introduced recently has real teeth in it. Under the law, which is up for a vote tomorrow, establishments that employ dancers under 21 would lose their liquor licenses for at least a week for the first offense, a month for the second offense, and three months for a third offense. After a fourth, they'd see their liquor licenses suspended for at least a year.

Many of these clubs employ and prey on vulnerable people, those who are underage, mentally ill, or addicted to drugs and have found no other way to make money.

"Here is something we can do to shut down an avenue to human trafficking, the most degrading thing that can happen to our kids," Mr. Kelly said.

He hopes that if the ordinance passes, it could be taken statewide in the spring, erasing the club owners' complaint that if stripping is highly regulated in New Orleans, it will simply move to neighboring parishes.

I'll go further, and I bet Mr. Kelly would agree with me. There's no good reason why the law couldn't take hold around the nation. It simply makes sense that if you're not old enough to drink in a club, you shouldn't be old enough to take off your clothes there either. And if you do, the people who hired you should be held accountable, and closed down if they violate the law. A liquor license is a privilege bestowed by society, not a right. Businesses that endanger our youth should not be allowed to keep profiting off society's young and vulnerable, and the community's liquor licenses.

It's just one step forward in protecting young people from sex trafficking, but it's an important one.