Homeless teens at greater risk of sex trafficking

Homeless New York
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I urge you to read the sobering results of a new study by the Modern Slavery Research Project at Loyola University and Covenant House New Orleans. The report, released Tuesday, underscores how desperately homeless youth need safe places to stay, appropriate counseling and services, and job opportunities.

The study reveals that 14 percent of homeless youth staying at Covenant House New Orleans had been victims of human trafficking, and 25 percent had been involved in sexual labor (trafficked for sex or worked as commercial sex workers). The results were strikingly similar to those in a study we did two years ago in New York.

Every time I listen to our homeless young people, I'm floored by the traumas they've endured. One of our young people in New Orleans reported that her pimp locked her in a dog cage at night. Another of the girls said a pimp "threatened to shoot up my sister's house ... and she had kids so I didn't want that." So she had sex with a string of loveless johns, earning money for the pimp's benefit.

Stories like these must be told. If we don't know the extent of trafficking among homeless young people, we won't be able to help them effectively. Reliable figures using well-tested survey instruments, collected and analyzed with academic rigor, are hard to come by in the shadowy world of sex trafficking, where victims and survivors hesitate to identify themselves or to ask for help.

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Covenant House New Orleans serves about 700 youths and children a year. Homeless kids, ages 16 to 22, come to us on the edge of the French Quarter seeking food, clothing, shelter, educational and employment opportunities, as well as medical and mental health care. We also care for their babies and toddlers. Our mission? To give them absolute respect, unconditional love and a shot at the bright futures they deserve.

In interviews with 99 residents between February and June of last year, researchers learned that 11 of our young adults had been victims of sex trafficking, and five had been trafficked for their labor. If that frequency holds throughout the year, we will likely see 86 trafficking victims a year at Covenant House New Orleans and 154 youths who have been involved in sexual labor.

Tragically, some had been prostituted by their family members or intimate partners. One reported that when she was younger than 11, her mother had made her spend the night having sex with a man in exchange for a place for her and her mother to stay. Several had been forced to sell drugs or work under extremely dangerous conditions.

Every young woman in the survey who had been trafficked said she had experienced a high level of emotional trauma, yet specialized counseling for sexually exploited youth is scarce.

When we partnered with Fordham University and completed a similar study at Covenant House New York, I'd hoped the somber results would be an outlier. The news from New York was bad—almost 1 in 4 of our surveyed young people had been trafficked (using the federal definition of the term) or had participated in survival sex.

It turns out the exploitation and trafficking of youth surveyed in the Big Easy is just as prevalent as it is among surveyed youth in the Big Apple. Future studies of our youth are in the planning stages for Covenant Houses in Los Angeles, Oakland, California, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City and Newark in New Jersey.

The New Orleans study uncovered some results that surprised us, and highlight the need for this additional research. For example, 3 of the 11 sex trafficking victims were male, and young men accounted for a third of the reported cases of child sex trafficking.

While our sample size is extremely small, we hope the report stimulates further research on this population, as there are extremely few services available for male trafficking survivors, and incidents of male child sexual exploitation appear to be under-reported. Three of the 11 sex trafficking victims were lesbian, gay or bisexual, which echoes what we found in our New York study.

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This new study underscores how difficult it must be for a homeless young person simply to walk down the street. Almost a third of the kids interviewed said strangers had approached them to trade sex, or to participate in other illegal or informal work, most often in the sex trade. The kids told us these "creepy" encounters made them fear being out late in the city. The kids valued the protection Covenant House offers.

It made me think about how scary it is for the young people who don't make it to us, and face a night on a park bench or a bus station, where they are more vulnerable than ever to people who want to exploit them.

To keep young people safe from the horrors of trafficking, the report makes the following recommendations:

  1. We need more beds for homeless youth, to keep them safe from predators and to reduce the pipeline from homelessness to sexual exploitation.
  2. Kids who have been trafficked, and those at risk, need a stronger array of services, so they don't fall through the cracks and into the arms of pimps.
  3. We need more jobs that pay a living wage, and more skills training for vulnerable youth, so no one feels compelled to sell his or her body to make a living.
  4. We need to expand our care for young men who have been commercially sexually exploited, as they can be hesitant to talk about their experiences.
  5. Young people aging out of foster care at age 18 without a permanent family need more services and supports. According to the report, "Many of our respondents suggested that they only participated in survival sex or the sex trade once they found themselves homeless as a result of aging out."
  6. A 2014 law in Louisiana allowing trafficking victims to have prostitution charges removed from their records needs to be publicized, to allow more survivors to find new lives.
  7. We must train law enforcement officers to recognize trafficking victims, so survivors can receive legal support and relevant services, rather than criminal sentences.

No young person, in New Orleans, New York, or anywhere in our country or world, should be exploited and enslaved. No one should steal their bodies or labor for profit. We know how to fix the scourge of human trafficking. Armed with solid research and the will to work for reform, we should be able to protect the most vulnerable among us. Please join us in this important work at AbolishChildTrafficking.org.

Commentary by Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House International, the largest charity in the Americas serving homeless, runaway and trafficked young people. He is the co-author of "Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope" (Turner 2012). Follow him on Twitter @CovHousePrez.