New Study Reveals Vulnerability of Homeless Youth to Trafficking

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Today we are releasing the findings from one of the largest human trafficking studies among homeless youth in New York history, and the news is numbing. In interviews with almost 200 randomly selected homeless youth over the last year, researchers at Covenant House and Fordham University found that almost half -- 48% in total -- of those who engaged in commercial sexual activity said they did it because they did not have a place to stay.

Almost one out of every four homeless young people we interviewed were at some point in their lives either victims of trafficking or had engaged in survival sex (trading sex acts to meet basic needs like food or shelter). Kids who had a history of childhood sexual abuse, who lacked a caring, supportive adult in their life, and who had no means to earn an income were particularly vulnerable to such exploitation. Since Covenant House offers shelter and care to more than 3,000 youth in New York City each year, it is possible that we work with as many as 700 youth annually who have experienced trafficking or survival sex.

Imagine that - in two buildings in midtown Manhattan, we may see as many as 700 kids every year who have been sexually exploited, trafficked or forced to exchange sex for shelter. That is disgraceful, and a wake up call to all of us, including all of us at Covenant House, that we have to be prepared to respond to the needs of victims by making sure we do everything in our power to help them leave the streets safely and permanently.

Solid figures have been particularly hard to come by in growing discussions of human trafficking, in part because many survivors don't like to talk about having been exploited. Working with the Applied Developmental Psychology Department at Fordham, researchers at Covenant House developed a set of interview questions to make it easier to find trafficking victims, and we were surprised and dismayed by the extent of exploitation the young people who participated in the interviews had suffered.

We knew when the research team launched its study of human trafficking among our kids, that those who didn't have a safe place to sleep at night were particularly vulnerable to being exploited, pimped out, even enslaved, but the incidence is more common than I had anticipated. For advocates working with homeless youth across the United States, the study is a thunder clap - the fight against human trafficking is ours.

The kids told researchers stories that are hard to comprehend, but they were consistent over time. Those who had been compelled into sex trafficking reported being gang raped, intimidated, and beaten up. Four were kidnapped before being forced into prostitution, and several described repeated and unsuccessful attempts at escape. Their traffickers were often family members, friends of family, or boyfriends who at first pretended to love and care for them. How do you ever learn to trust again, after such experiences?

We learned that more than 40 percent of the young people in the study were over 18 when they first traded sex for something of value like food and shelter, either through trafficking or survival sex. This is an older starting age than earlier studies‎ have shown - many trafficked youth report having started selling sex at age 12 or 14. According to the research team, the sample of kids represented in today's study may have started later because many didn't experience enduring homelessness until they were over 18, when they left foster care, for example, or were kicked out of their homes for being gay. The findings starkly underline the correlation between youth homelessness, exploitation and commercial sexual activity.

We have to remember that older adolescents who have been trafficked have the same needs for help, love, and guidance, as younger ones do. The older trafficked kids are often suffering from more entrenched problems and educational deficits, yet some in the public tend to look at them as guilty criminals, rather than as young people who have grown up with constant trauma who were left to survive on the streets.

It is clear to me that if we want to reduce the number of young people who are trafficked -- and who doesn't? -- we need to attack the problems of supply and demand. Too many of us focus on just the demand side of this nightmare -- fighting important battles to detect, arrest, prosecute and punish those pimps, johns, gangs and cartels who buy and sell young bodies, while deterring others who may do so next.

The truth is we will never arrest our way out of this. We cannot effectively end the exploitation of young people if we do not focus on the root causes and conditions of their vulnerability. And that means we have to ensure stable housing for many more kids than we currently do, so they won't have to make impossible choices between shelter and dignity, between shelter and innocence, between shelter and safety.

All across the nation, both at the federal, state and local levels, government is withdrawing aid to homeless youth while in some instances establishing new anti-trafficking programs or heralding new safe houses for trafficking survivors. It makes no sense for public leaders in New York and elsewhere to increase aid to shelter human trafficking victims while simultaneously slashing support for homeless youth shelters. These are the same kids!

The nation's expanding state and federal anti-trafficking coalitions must build agendas that go beyond a criminal justice response for traffickers; we need robust prevention initiatives. We need to keep kids safe from sexual abuse, promote firm family ties, and ensure kids are equipped, through housing, education and job training, to live safely and independently when they are old enough.

Of course every young person deserves a future of opportunity, one free from sexual exploitation. But keeping them safe from the predators who lurk in the darkest corners of society is going to require that we get real about the causes of human trafficking and start building more bridges from homelessness to hope.