Human trafficking is an ever-growing issue that exists across the world and is a crime whose victims tend to be society's most vulnerable.
While there are many factors that can lead to someone becoming vulnerable, research suggests that homelessness can be an influential factor in individuals being targeted by traffickers who may offer a means to survive and a roof over one's head.
Studies have shown that homeless youth are especially vulnerable to being trafficked.
A recent study in 2017, “Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth” showed that nearly one in five (19.4%) of the 911 interviewed youth in Covenant House shelters across 13 cities in the United States and Canada were victims of human trafficking, with 15% having been trafficked for sex, 7.4% trafficked for labor and 3% trafficked for both.
There are many factors involved in youth homelessness which include violence, trauma and abuse. In these circumstances, not having a stable or consistent residence or source of income can make a young person particularly susceptible to the promises of people who would seek to exploit them.
And in Canada, during the cold winter months, having warm refuge from dangerously cold weather can make a young person with a lack of suitable shelter even more vulnerable. The need to have a roof over one's head becomes not just a matter of stability, but an urgent matter of life and death.
According to "The health of street youth: A Canadian perspective", the longer youth are homeless, the more they are exposed to the risks of sexual and economic exploitation and the more likely they are to experience trauma, declining health, nutritional vulnerability, and addictions.
Many youth that find themselves in this position are scared, feel alone, have limited skills and experience to live independently, and typically lack knowledge on how to navigate access to support systems that would assist in them in a healthy transition to the responsibilities of adulthood.
One of the 2017 project researchers, Laura T. Murphy said "We found that youth were seeking what we all seek — shelter, work, security — and that the trafficker preyed on those very needs. When we asked youth what they needed to avoid or escape these situations of forced labor and radical exploitation, they often pointed to the very resources that homeless shelters can and do provide them. What we need is more resources to support those programs and additional training that help service providers identify and assist those who are most at risk."
Among the 13 cities that participated in the above-mentioned study, Toronto and Vancouver were included as the two Canadian locations for Covenant House.
Covenant House Toronto is Canada’s largest youth shelter, serving as many as 250 young people a day.
Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House Toronto was quoted saying, “It’s not unusual for young people when they hit the streets to be lured and to be targeted by predators and by pimps. And they’ll do whatever they can to engage with these young people and to get them engaged to the point where they’re providing sexual favours for people and generating income for that pimp.”
The average age of trafficked victims cared for by Covenant House Toronto is 17 years old, but staff have seen victims as young as 13.
So, what can we do to help?
Many victims and survivors, especially youth find it difficult to cope with the trauma of being or having been exploited, abused, and neglected.
Many support systems and services that currently exist need to continue to develop in a way that meets young survivors "right where they are at". This would include being more flexible in meeting their needs, for example, extending qualifications of certain government-funded services past the "one year of last trafficking date", as well as the limited time-frame surrounding availability of counselling services, and not "aging out" services the day a survivor turns 18.
It has been shown that when a young person is able to access supportive programs and services in a safe nurturing environment that can help them to find suitable housing, healthy connections within the community, develop life skills, and employment, they are less likely to remain homeless and essentially vulnerable to exploiters in the future.
In Ontario and across this country, we can continue to support places like Covenant House Toronto and agencies within our own communities that provide crucial supports and programs with housing options and wraparound supports for victims of homelessness and human trafficking. It is important to educate one's self, share resources with each other and respond to the needs of the organizations and agencies that assist those within our communities who are vulnerable and in need of a helping hand and support system.
Let's do our part FOR and WITH them! ♡