Homelessness and Human Trafficking
by Alex Bumbarger from Project Fight
Note: Names and identifying information have been changed to ensure client confidentiality.
Gabby’s move to stay with her cousin and her cousin’s boyfriend in America began with hope. Hope for a fresh start as she entered her twenties and hope to support her family in Guatemala. Instead, it was the beginning of something vastly different. For months, Gabby was forced to give up the paychecks she received at work to her cousin’s boyfriend as well as perform sex acts on him and his friends in order to continue staying with them. Gabby fled, but without her identification documents, her car, a job, or a home, all of which were taken by her cousin’s boyfriend. She then fell victim to further sexual exploitation until she was able to access a service provider who referred her to Project FIGHT for shelter and comprehensive case management.
Tragically, Gabby’s story is not rare. The events and circumstances that lead to human trafficking do not occur in a vacuum, which prompts the question: How do we, as a community, work towards ending human trafficking?
Each of us can take action within our spheres of influence to prevent human trafficking. At Project FIGHT, we believe it is essential to examine the intersection of homelessness and human trafficking in order to understand some of the core contributing factors. I will be sharing with readers recruitment tactics frequently used within homeless communities, some of the barriers individuals face when attempting to access help, and explore strategies to create low barrier access points for victims.
Please note, the intersection of homelessness and human trafficking is a nuanced and complex issue, and therefore cannot be fully addressed in a single post. I invite readers to continue to learn more about how you can do your part to fight human trafficking and support survivors by visiting www.projectfight.org, www.nccaht.org, and www.polarisproject.org.
Traffickers utilize a number of recruitment tactics on those who are experiencing homelessness or are vulnerable to homelessness. However, the following are some of the most common tactics that clients of Project FIGHT have shared with our team and our community partners.
Provide Shelter and Guidance
In Gabby’s situation, her trafficker provided housing but then forced her to work and perform sex acts to remain there. When approaching vulnerable individuals, traffickers often present themselves as a “helper” who express a desire to provide shelter and guidance as an attempt to manipulate and coerce vulnerable individuals (such as youth runaways, single parents, and survivors of domestic violence) into believing they can be trusted.
Unlike Hollywood’s depiction of human trafficking, traffickers often have preexisting relationships with their victims. It is common for traffickers to be significant others, family members, friends, classmates, or trusted mentor-like figures such as coaches and youth leaders. However, for minors [individuals under the age of 18 years old] who do not have a support system or the guidance of a trusted adult in their lives, traffickers will take the time to build relationships, make promises of companionship and support, and then exploit their vulnerability. Common locations traffickers meet homeless youth are in and around places such as homeless shelters, shopping malls, and bus stations.
Some of our clients, who are single parents and/or survivors of domestic violence, have shared with us that they first encountered their traffickers in locations one may expect vulnerable individuals to be, such as outside social service agencies or bus stops near shelters. Spending time in these areas provides opportunities for traffickers to build rapport with individuals, plant seeds of doubt around accepting assistance from service providers, and coerce them to staying with them in places such as in homeless camps or unfamiliar homes. Residing in areas such as these increases the risk of exploitation for individuals and their children.
Provide Inclusion and Community
Traffickers often identify marginalized individuals and offer a sense of inclusion and community as a means of enticement. Systemic racism, implicit biases among service providers and law enforcement, and social and economic marginalization contribute to vulnerability and limit access to care. Populations t higher risk include BIPOC¹, the LGBTQIA+ community², undocumented individuals³, and those with physical or intellectual disabilities⁴.
Traffickers also recruit by providing support through money, drugs, travel and more. Based on what survivors have disclosed, support is typically provided under the premise that traffickers simply desire to assist with the survivors’ needs. However, in time, traffickers then use the assistance they provided as leverage, or a debt that they force survivors to pay back through sex or labor.
Barriers to accessing help
Survivors who are able to leave their trafficker often seek services, such as shelter, and then face barriers that limit or prevent them from receiving help. This can lead to further trauma and victimization, and sometimes pushes survivors back to traffickers if they do not receive the help that they need.
Please note, barriers can and do exist in both shelters and other direct services. How can each of us model what it looks like to be low barrier in our current professions? Possible barriers include:
1. Lack of LGBTQ+ Inclusive Policies: Requiring transgender or non-binary individuals to reside in shelter dorms according to sex assigned at birth.
2. An absence of bilingual staff or language tools and resources: Receiving documentation in English without access to interpretation services.
3.Requirement of an ID to receive services: Both domestic and foreign-born survivors often have their ID stolen or do not have the ability to hold on to them due to the constant transitions common with homelessness.
4. A lack of staff training on providing trauma-informed services: When survivors experience PTSD triggers that interfere with shelter policies, they are often dismissed from the shelter immediately, which can cause further trauma.
5. Requirement to attend a faith service in order to reside in a shelter or housing program: This withholds the opportunity for survivors to exercise their freedom of religion and autonomy, which they could not do while being trafficked. It can also re-traumatize those who were victims of abuse within faith communities.
6. Requirement to be sober or provide a clear drug test: Traffickers often force or coerce their victims into using substances. Recovery requires patience and support for survivors who were forced to use substances or do not have other coping mechanisms for the trauma they have endured.
7. Criminal backgrounds: Not accepting survivors with past charges or convictions can be a punitive policy, especially for survivors with charges associated with their trafficking.
8. Requirement to leave shelter during the day and return in the evenings: This leaves survivors vulnerable to possible further victimization when they cannot safely reside inside as they recover, are unfamiliar with the area around the shelter, and have no other support systems to depend on.
9. Requirement for survivors to give up their cell phones to staff: This policy creates a safety risk for survivors who may experience emergencies outside of shelter. This also isolates them from any existing support systems they are in communication with prior to entering a shelter. Concerns that a survivor’s phone may be tracked by their trafficker can typically be addressed through replacing the phone or turning location settings off.
10. Not accepting individuals who have a history of multiple mental health diagnoses or those who were recently discharged from a behavioral health facility: Human trafficking, by nature, has an inevitable and significant negative impact on a victim’s mental health.
11. Intense chores: Structure and basic chores are often expected within shelters. However, clients have shared that rigid schedules and extensive chores can feel like a controlled environment, which triggers the environment they escaped. This can make it extremely difficult to manage, especially for survivors who have recently left their trafficking situation.
Steps towards Solutions to Common Barriers
1. Black, Indigenous people of color (BIPOC): Documentation of human trafficking can be found in the origin and foundation of the United States and remains embedded within our societal structures today. According to a UCLA Law Review article, titled “The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking,” by Cheryl Nelson Butler, “Race intersects with other forms of subordination including gender, class, and age to push people of color disproportionately into prostitution and keep them trapped in the commercial sex industry. Its intersectional oppression is fueled by the persistence of myths about minority teen sexuality, which in turn encourages risky sexual behavior,” Butler goes on to state, “today’s anti-trafficking movement has failed to understand and address the racial contours of domestic sex trafficking in the United States and even perpetuates the racial myths that undermine the proper identification of minority youth as sex trafficking victims.”
2. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (one's sexual or gender identity), intersex, and asexual/aromantic/agender (LGBTQIA+): Limited legislation that protect the LGBTQIA+ community against housing and workforce discrimination is one of the many factors that contribute to the increased risk for homelessness and exploitation. LGBTQIA+ youth are statistically more vulnerable to violence and exploitation, often due to conflict at home when families do not accept them for their “lifestyle”. According to Polaris Project, “Research shows that 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ+. Ninety-one percent of those youth in similar situations in another study reported having been approached by someone offering them a way to earn income that was too good to be true – a sign of trafficking.”
At project FIGHT, our team has witnessed this repeatedly. One example of this is, a client we worked with who was kicked out of their home at 13 years old for being transgender. They disclosed to us that they had nowhere to go, which led to homelessness and eventually being trafficked by a “friend” they met through a shelter. Their friend provided them with a place to stay, coerced them into substance use, and forced them into sex trafficking. Our client faced threats of violence and continued homelessness if they did not obey their friend’s demands.
3. Undocumented Individuals:
Employers have a great deal of power over employees who work for them under a H-2A or H-2B visa, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation. According to Polaris Project, “human traffickers are using workers under H-2A, H-2B and other popular temporary work visas as their personal ATM machines and along the way, making legitimate businesses, consumers and the U.S. government complicit in the $150 billion business of global human trafficking”
Foreign-born individuals who do not possess a visa or green card but seek asylum or refuge are also vulnerable to exploitation, especially for those who do not speak English. Traffickers or recruiters who speak their language can propose work opportunities that do not require documentation and can offer housing with other individuals who speak their same language. Opportunities like these come with a great deal of risk for exploitation, but may appear as someone’s best option.
4. Individuals with Physical or Intellectual Disabilities: Many people with physical or intellectual disabilities often live with an element of dependency on others, creating vulnerability. According to The Human Trafficking Legal Center, some of the vulnerabilities that increase the risk for exploitation are:
a. Being dependent on family members, guardians, and residential care providers.
b. Receiving government benefits. Along with being trafficked for sex or labor, “many cases include one additional element: the theft of Social Security and disability benefits”.
Learn more about how you can join the FIGHT against human trafficking and support survivors by visiting www.projectfight.org.
Alex Bumgardner has her Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from North Carolina State University. She has worked with survivors of trauma for over five years, three of which have been with Project FIGHT as the Regional Case Manager in Asheville, NC. She provides case management services to survivors of human trafficking of all ages, conducts trainings in her community, and collaborates with local partners, such as law enforcement, in order to help address survivor's most critical needs. Through Project FIGHT, Alex provides or connects survivors to resources such as emergency shelter, food, medical care, mental health services, legal assistance, and long-term housing.