For survivors of sex trafficking, finding and keeping a safe place to stay is one of the greatest contributors to initial exploitation and one of the most significant challenges to remaining free. People experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness are far more likely to be victimized through trafficking, particularly minors and young adults. Even after finding freedom from trafficking, survivors regularly face incredible barriers to securing a place in a restorative care home or being accepted as a rentor in an independent living situation. Survivors who are unable to find or keep housing are highly vulnerable to revictimization.
In the United States, people of all ages who experience homelessness or housing insecurity are highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation through trafficking. Survivors of sex trafficking often cite the following factors related to housing as substantial contributors to their initial trafficking experience.
- Homelessness — Teenagers and young adults are especially vulnerable to being trafficked while homeless. A study from 2016 found that one in five homeless youth had engaged in commercial sex solely to access housing or food while living on the street (a situation also known as survival sex), which is a very common first experience with sexual exploitation among trafficking survivors. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that 64% of survivors were experiencing homelessness or unstable housing situations when they were trafficked. Housing insecurity is one of the most powerful tools that traffickers use to exploit victims, usually by first offering shelter as a recruitment tactic and later threatening to make them homeless unless they comply.
- Financial need — It is very common for people experiencing homelessness to be exploited through risky work opportunities. The 2016 study found that 91% of people living on the street had been approached by strangers at least once and offered a lucrative job opportunity that turned out to be exploitative. Traffickers understand that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to ignore the risk due to financial need and exploit them through fraud, scams, pandering, or sex trafficking. In fact, 84% of the youth who reported engaging in commercial sex even without a third-party controller did so because they needed the money to buy necessities while homeless.
- Experience in the foster care system — Individuals who have spent time in the foster care system are more likely to experience both homelessness and sexual exploitation. Girls in foster care are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, with 54% reporting it in one study, and sexual abuse is one of the key predictors of minor girls experiencing homelessness. Childhood sexual abuse is also extremely common among survivors of sex trafficking (49%), so individuals who have been in foster care, have experienced sexual abuse, and are now experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable individuals to sex trafficking.
- Gender & sexual orientation — Among people experiencing homelessness, gender was less of a predictive factor in their risk for trafficking than among people not experiencing homelessness. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 80% of sex trafficking victims are female and less than 10% are identified as male. However, the 2016 study found that 20% of homeless women and 11% of homeless men had experience at least one situation that is classified as sex trafficking. In fact, 24% of men experiencing homelessness in the study had engaged in at least on commercial sexual exchange, although not all are considered trafficking. In the population of people experiencing homelessness, men are much more likely than in the general population to be targeted for sexual exploitation. However, similarly to the general population, people in the LGBTQ+ community are much more vulnerable to trafficking than non-LGBTQ+ people. In the 2016 study, LGBTQ+ teenagers and young adults experiencing homelessness accounted for only 21% of the interviewed youth and 29% of the sex trafficking victims. While all people experiencing homelessness are significantly more vulnerable to sex trafficking, men and LGBTQ+ individuals are much more likely to be exploited through trafficking than if they were not experiencing homelessness.
Even after leaving a trafficking situation, many survivors say that finding a safe place to stay while healing is one of the greatest challenges to prevent being exploited again. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that shelter assistance is the most requested service for all crisis cases they handle. This is one of the most powerful arguments in favor of safe house programs, which provide for a survivor’s basic needs and physical safety while offering the resources many survivors need to heal.
- Emergency safe house programs support survivors who have just left a trafficking situation and need help getting away. These programs focus on safety, stabilization, and meeting the survivor’s immediate needs, which can include medical care, detoxification services, and transportation out of the area. Emergency programs are short-term solutions intended to help survivors get back on their feet and make informed choices about where to go next.
- Long-term restorative care programs, which usually offer services for 12 to 18 months, are designed to provide a survivor with the resources, space, and time they need to focus healing. These programs focus on various forms of therapy, education, medical care, and life skills training to support survivors as they rebuild their lives.
- Transitional safe homes support survivors as needed to build the habits, life skills, and experience necessary to live independently. These programs often offer similar services as long-term programs, which survivors can access as they need to help them along the way.
Each of these program types connect survivors to safe, stable, and affordable housing. Unfortunately, in the United States, there is a severe lack of available space in all three kinds of programs. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 64% of survivors say that the lack of affordable housing was a barrier in their ability to leave their trafficking situation. Of the survivors that are able to leave, 80% will be revictimized without the restorative care and housing support they need to remain free from exploitation.
While survivors can and do seek help from other shelter types, most of these resources are not equipped to respond appropriately to the complex and specialized needs of trafficking survivors. Without the right kind of protections and training, even shelters can become centers for trafficking recruitment — 15% of trafficking victims report being recruited directly from shelter programs or group homes.
A lack of safe, accessible, and affordable housing options for trafficking survivors is actively contributing to their vulnerability and victimization. Although addressing this problem will require a complex, systemic solution, it should be a priority for the anti-trafficking movement.
The following points include recommended actions for safe house programs, emergency shelters, placement services, and other anti-trafficking organizations to contribute to the solution:
- Involve survivor leaders in the development and expansion of services. This point is particularly important for organizations that regularly serve individuals from communities that are underserved and overrepresented in the survivor population. As always, survivor leaders are the most equipped to understand the complex needs and vulnerabilities of trafficking victims. It is critical to include their viewpoint and expertise in new or expanding services to ensure that they will best serve the actual needs of survivors.
- Consider how to lower barriers to accessing housing services. There are multiple reasons a safe housing option may exclude a trafficking victim from their services, including a history of violence, criminal records, custody of children, severe mental health challenges, service animals, gender, and sexual orientiation. There are valid concerns about housing vulnerable people to carefully consider for each of these factors, but trafficking survivors already face far too many barriers to housing. Safe homes and other shelters should thoroughly review their criteria for refusing access to services and lower barriers wherever possible and wise.
- Cultivate partnerships in the community to provide specialized services. Trafficking survivors often need comprehensive and specialized programs to help them heal holistically. Providing all of these resources in-house can be impossible for a safe home program, which makes external community partnerships invaluable to many programs. Partnership focuses can include education, medical care, life skills training, cultural activities, and more. Actively pursuing and cultivating partnerships in local communities is a healthy strategy for all programs, as it supports survivors in their holistic healing and the programs by taking some of the weight of responsibility. In particular, partnerships with local homeless and runaway services can help reduce initial victimization and re-exploitation of these vulnerable individuals.
- Expand programs based on sustainable and proven models. There is a simple need for more available spaces for survivors in all three types of safe house programs. However, opening a new safe home or expanding an existing one should not be taken lightly. As powerful as these programs can be in the healing journey of trafficking survivors, they can be just as damaging. Expansion plans should be carefully planned using proven models focused on sustainable practices. Many established and successful programs offer mentorship services to help new programs build a strong foundation of services, including Safe House Project.
Recognizing the housing crisis as a major contributor in vulnerability to trafficking is a critical step to building an effective response to human trafficking in the United States. The anti-trafficking movement must consider how to meet this need in vulnerable populations to reduce victimization, increase identification, and support the comprehensive healing of survivors.