Action Alert

Futures in Peril: Human Trafficking Among Homeless Youth

Futures in Peril: Human Trafficking Among Homeless Youth

Human traffickers prey on the vulnerable and marginalized in society. The Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to eradicating this form of modern day slavery, lists child runaways and homeless youth as targets for pimps and traffickers to be exploited in the commercial sex industry or various labor or services industries: “…sex traffickers are skilled at manipulating child victims and maintaining control through a combination of deception, lies, feigned affection, threats, and violence.” States and the federal government can deal with this serious threat to the safety of homeless youth by passing laws that provide protection, training, and education for this vulnerable population.

Runaway Children

It is estimated that 85 percent of confirmed sex trafficking victims in the world are in the United States, and most of them are runaway children. The United States Department of Justice estimates that “there are an estimated 200,000 American children at risk for trafficking into the sex industry alone.” According to a study conducted amongst 200 homeless youth in New York by Covenant House and Fordham University, “48 percent of those who participated in commercial sexual activity said they did so because they did not have a place to stay.” Additionally, the interviews showed that, “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.” Research studies conducted by Department of Health and Human Services employees supported the fact that traffickers target children with low self-esteem and little social support, and indicated that, “These traits are highly prevalent among young people experiencing homelessness or those in foster care, due to their histories of abuse, neglect, and trauma.”

The following statistics reveal the connection between homeless youth and human trafficking in America. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) estimates that 1.3 million youth live on the streets in the United States due to running away from home, being abandoned or becoming homeless. On average, these boys and girls are solicited for sex within 72 hours of being on the street. The ACF also estimates that 55 percent of girls on the street engage in formal prostitution, and 20 percent of girls end up in nationally organized crime networks, where they are forced to travel far from their home and are isolated from loved ones.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, over 600,000 individuals experience homelessness on any single night in America. And while overall homelessness in the United States has been decreasing during the economic recovery, “the pool of people at risk of homelessness, those in poverty, those living with friends and family, and those paying over half of their income for housing, has remained high.” The National Alliance estimates that approximately 39,000 children who experience homelessness or leave their home are sexually assaulted or experience youth trafficking. The children who are victimized by commercial exploitation often have broken relationships with their families and histories of child abuse. To further complicate matters for these child victims, they can often be treated as criminals because of law enforcement practices: “Though children engaged in prostitution are victims of trafficking, many law enforcement and legal systems still view them as juvenile delinquents.”

Developing Programs

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children Youth and Families (ACYF) published a guidance letter for states to consider when developing programs and policies to address the crime of human trafficking and its prevalence among homeless youth. Federal law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion in situations of forced labor for services or any time a child is found in the commercial sex industry. The ACYF letter points to the responsibility of general citizens in identifying potential situations of trafficking: “For example, victims of child trafficking may attend school, participate in other social activities, or have contact with neighbors and community members who may be in positions to help identify situations of child trafficking.”

The following true story from a United States Department of Justice case provides an illustration of labor trafficking with a young girl:
In 2006, a wife and husband in Lakewood, Washington, pleaded guilty to charges of forced labor after bringing their 12-year-old niece to the United States on promises that she will attend school in exchange for childcare and housework. The victim was forced to cook, clean, provide childcare, and work at the defendant’s coffee shop twelve to fourteen hours a day. The child was physically abused, threatened with deportation, not paid for her work at the coffee shop, and attended school for only a short time. The child escaped with the help of friends and a community-based organization.”

States Take Action

In response, states are taking action through new legislation and coalitions to provide appropriate training for law enforcement and social work officials. In the state of Texas, the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance was formed to provide collaboration between law enforcement agencies and non-governmental organizations that work to address the needs of victims. “It is one of five Bureau of Justice Associates (BJA) funded task forces throughout Texas and forty-two across the country. The collaboration of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies works with social service organizations to identify and assist the victims of human trafficking and to prosecute the perpetrators of these horrific crimes.”

In Atlanta, Ga., previous mayor Shirley Franklin collaborated with the Juvenile Justice Fund to initiate the “Dear John” program to educate the public about the exploitation of children. Additionally, the Juvenile Justice Fund founded a statewide initiative called “A Future, Not a Past.” This initiative aims to end child prostitution through research, prevention, intervention, and education. In New York, the state legislature has taken steps in recent years to address human trafficking through legislation. In 2009, the state Assembly passed a law that made trafficking a felony, and advocates supported it as one of the toughest and most comprehensive laws in the nation. State legislatures in Minnesota and Ohio have since passed similar laws to criminalize traffickers and provide protection and support for its victims. The most recent Ohio law, called the End Demand Act, turned paying for sex with a minor into a third- or fifth-degree felony. One Ohio lawmaker said that “Ohio has a strong set of laws against human trafficking, and the state’s next step is to punish those who purchase sex with a 15- to 17-year-old with the same-level felony as those who purchase sex with a child.”

The Federal Response

To respond at the federal level, Representative Joseph Heck of New Jersey introduced H.R. 5076, the Enhancing Services for Runaway and Homeless Victims of Youth Trafficking Act of 2014. The bill, which was passed in the House in July of this year, would provide grants to states, local communities and non-profit organizations to carry out “research, evaluation, and service projects regarding activities designed to increase knowledge concerning, and to improve services for, runaway youth and homeless youth.” Specifically, this bill would require government officials to give priority to projects related to staff training in the behavioral and emotional effects of trafficking, as well as any agency-wide strategies for working with runaway and homeless youth who have been victimized by trafficking.

S. 2646, the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act was introduced in the Senate by Patrick Leahy of Vermont. This bill modifies the Basic Center Grant Program to require local emergency shelter and family reunification centers to provide trauma-informed services to runaway and homeless youth and would extend the maximum stay period for these youth from 21 days to 30 days. Steps like these provide better informed services to this vulnerable population. Because this crime is so widespread, it is clear that governments will need to continue to work with and rely on professional trauma-support and counseling services from shelters and other non-government organizations to best meet the needs of victims.

For more information contact: Susie Johnson – WASHINGTON OFFICE OF PUBLIC POLICY 100 Maryland Avenue, NE Suite 100 20002:

Posted or updated: 12/5/2014 11:00:00 PM
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Suggested Pages:

*Human Trafficking

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Take Action

  • Contact your congressional representative (Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121) and urge them to support H.R. 5076 – Enhancing Services for Runaway and Homeless Victims of Youth Trafficking Act of 2014, which would help ensure that law enforcement officers are adequately trained to deal with the effects of human trafficking in homeless youth.

  • Read the Child Victims of Human Trafficking Fact Sheet published by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

  • Visit the website of the National Alliance to End Homelessness to learn about more ways you can connect with others fighting to end homelessness in America. Read The State of Homelessness in America.

  • Read Violence Against Children: Child Abuse and Human Trafficking, a safety and violence prevention curriculum provided by the Ohio Department of Education.

  • Learn your state’s human trafficking grade as presented by the Protected Innocence Challenge, a report on the state of child sex trafficking laws in the U.S. Learn how your state measures up.

  • Read “Local Church Support for Young People,” #3461, pages 511-512, and “Homelessness in the United States,” #3261, pages 376 – 380: The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).

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