One in Five Homeless Youth Is a Human Trafficking Victim, Studies Find

Nearly a fifth of homeless youth in the United States and Canada are victims of trafficking, reports from the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University New Orleans find.

Based on interviews with nine hundred and eleven homeless youth between the ages of 17 and 25 in thirteen cities — including twelve where youth were able to access services through Covenant House — researchers at Penn's Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice & Research and Loyola's Modern Slavery Research Project found that a combined 19.4 percent of those interviewed were victims of trafficking. Across the two studies, 15 percent of respondents had been trafficked for sex (including youth who were not coerced but were minors), 7.4 percent had been trafficked for labor; and 3 percent had been trafficked for both. LGBTQ individuals, who made up 19.2 percent of the homeless youth interviewed, were disproportionately more likely to be victims of sex trafficking, with 26.9 percent reporting that they had been trafficked for sex, accounting for 33.8 percent of all sex trafficking victims in the two studies. The studies also found that 32.1 percent of all respondents had been trafficked for sex, engaged in "survival sex," or engaged in the sex trade in some way — including 40.5 percent of female respondents, 25.3 percent of male respondents, and 56 percent of transgender youth respondents.

The Modern Slavery Research Project's ten-city study Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth (executive summary, 8 pages, PDF) also found that 81 percent of labor trafficking cases involved forced drug dealing, often occurring as a result of familial and cultural coercion as well as pressure from suppliers and gangs. The report further notes that homeless youth have higher rates of primary risk factors for trafficking such as poverty, unemployment, and a history of sexual abuse or mental health issues, and that those aging out of the foster care system faced high rates of sex (18 percent) and labor (10 percent) trafficking.

According to the Field Center study (2 pages, PDF) of homeless youth in in Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., 95 percent of youth who were sex trafficked reported a history of childhood maltreatment — including sexual (49 percent) and physical (33 percent) abuse — while 41 percent had been in out-of-home placement. When sex trafficking victims were asked what could have helped prevent their being trafficked, the most common response was having supportive parents or family members. Indeed, the study found that interviewees who did not have a caring adult in their lives were more likely to be trafficked for sex (58 percent) than those who did (41 percent). In addition, the study found that of the sex trafficking victims, 67 percent had not graduated from high school.

"We found that youth were seeking what we all seek — shelter, work, security — and that the trafficker preyed on those very needs," said Laura T. Murphy of the Modern Slavery Research Project. "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."