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.
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.