To Fight Human Trafficking, The Budget Must Protect Homeless Kids

With the news from two major studies released last month that one in five homeless youth has been trafficked, it is now clear that safe, affordable housing has become an essential front in the war against human trafficking. There’s good news ― and looming bad news – from the battlefield, and the safety of youth experiencing homelessness lies in the balance.

The good news is Congress reached agreement on its budget for the rest of Fiscal Year 2017, avoiding a government shutdown, and it has raised some homelessness-related funding levels, and kept others level, through September.

There was an increase of $10 million for Youth Homelessness Demonstration Projects, which are designed to focus resources in select communities across the country to achieve rapid and sustainable reductions in youth homelessness. Congress enacted a small (0.06 percent) increase in homeless assistance programs generally and education for Homeless Children and Youth saw an increase of $7 million. Those are positive steps.

But the 2018 budget could be another story. In March, President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget called for a $6.2 billion, 13.2 percent decrease in funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There was talk of cutting $600 million from the operating funds of public housing, and $1.3 billion from the public housing capital fund, even though there are tens of billions in repairs needed in public housing, as of 2010. As the number of habitable subsidized housing units decreases, kids like the ones we care for at Covenant House will have fewer options when they try to find their own apartments.

The proposed cuts will be devastating.

And I am also gravely concerned about how programs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services like the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act will fare in the final budget. Those programs provide essential outreach, shelter, and transitional housing for homeless youth—an essential bridge from the streets to hope for tens of thousands of young people who are alone and without a safe place to live.

We at Covenant House know that providing affordable housing to vulnerable young people is more than just the right thing to do. It is the best way to prevent the exploitation of desperate young people, which President Trump recently called an epidemic he would bring the “full force and weight” of the government to fight.

In reports released last month, the Loyola University (New Orleans) Modern Slavery Research Project and The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania announced that of the 911 young people from 13 cities they had interviewed, most of whom lived at Covenant House, one in five had been trafficked for sex or labor. More than two thirds had been homeless when they’d been trafficked. In a similar study conducted in New York City with Fordham University, 48 percent of the young people interviewed said they would not have engaged in commercial sexual activity if they’d had a safe place to stay.

We at Covenant House are joining the National Network for Youth and SchoolHouse Connection to urge everyone who cares about homeless children and young people to contact your Congressional legislators and ask them to preserve the nation’s housing safety net. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, for instance, has been preserved through October 2018, by the 2017 Congressional budget, but its funding is not secure beyond that. The group’s goal, you may recall, is to end youth homelessness by 2020.

We have proven that when we as a country put our hearts, minds and funds to it, we can reduce various forms of homelessness substantially. Veteran homelessness was reduced by 47 percent from 2010 to 2016, and Utah reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent in a decade.

Let’s not stop before directing our political will towards ending homelessness among young people. And, if we keep our kids safely housed, we can make great progress in foiling the pimps and gangs who target them.

No child or youth in the United States of America should be homeless, and we can work together to make that a reality.