It’s the middle of the night and you’re alone. You’re isolated and hidden. No one can hear you or see you. You’re defenseless and you’re still. You’re scared.
It’s a situation we would avoid at all costs. Just thinking about it makes our hearts beat faster. We’d say it’s asking for trouble — and it is. It welcomes danger, begs for something bad for happen.
For some it’s all there is left. For homeless youth the moment sounds quite different.
It’s the middle of the night and you’re alone (because you don’t have anywhere to go). You’re isolated and hidden (because you’re hoping no one unwelcome will find you). No one can hear you or see you. You’re defenseless (because you didn’t have a chance to take much with you), and you’re still (hoping to get a moment of rest). You’re scared (of where you’ll go next, of what happens if you go back home, of someone who might find you here, of where you’ll sleep tomorrow night, of where your next meal will come from, of what you’ll do if it doesn’t get better.)
This fear is well-founded: traffickers and abusers prey on the vulnerable — the ones with no place to go and no one looking out for them. There is a strong correlation between homelessness and sexual exploitation. Youth wandering the streets or without stable homes are prime targets. Meghan Huebner, Vice President of Residential Services at Second Story, says, “It’s the kids that no one is going to question where they’ve been. When a parent is there after school, there’s going to be someone looking for them if they don’t come home for dinner.” But the kid who doesn’t have someone waiting for them at the supper table? No one will know if they go missing, no one will pick up on the signs if they’re being manipulated.
The issue runs deep. Homeless youth are more likely to have encountered sexual violence from the very beginning. According to a 2002 report on sexual abuse among adolescent runaways prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 21-40% of homeless youth had been sexually abused, compared to 1-3% of the general population. Insecure housing is often the starting point, a feeding ground for exploitation. Families may share the same living space with strangers to save money on rent, with young children sleeping next to adults they do not know. If abuse does occur, the child or the parent may be hesitant to report it for fear they’ll lose what limited options they have.
Once a young person is on the street things get even more perilous. Criminals and gangs target low-income areas where homelessness and vulnerability run rampant. “Pedophiles and criminals know to go to low-income places because the kids are more vulnerable,” says Nandred Navarro, Vice President of Community-Based Services at Second Story. For gangs that used to be financed by drugs, trafficking is the new gold standard. Hard to prove or trace, it’s a devastatingly effective system. Gang members are strategic about whom they recruit: those most desperate for money or resources, lacking a support system, and least likely to seek help. They use unassuming recruiters, like young women or peers. “This isn’t usually the creepy guy on the corner,” Huebner says, “it’s the girl that sits next to you in school.” It’s not just trafficking, either — sexual exploitation is offered in a variety of perverse forms on the streets, from abuse to “survival sex.” Homeless youth may be driven to their most desperate ends to find security, trading sex to meet their most basic needs. The National Network for Youth reports that 28% of youth living on the street trade sex for food, money, or a place to stay.
Sometimes the abuse is reported, but often it is not. “This is probably happening in higher numbers than we think,” explains Huebner. “We have kids who disappear for a weekend and come back with money and they can’t explain how they received it.”
Homelessness isn’t enough of a nightmare on its own — it also catapults a young person into a pit of challenges, risks, and disadvantages. In the same way, by addressing homelessness we respond to an array of other issues simultaneously, including sexual exploitation in any form. The statistics are clear — a young person with a safe place to stay is significantly less likely to be sexually abused or trafficked.
Second Story works to keep young people off the streets, both in emergencies and with long term housing. Our teen shelter provides a place for young people to stay when they have nowhere else to go — whether there are issues at home, they’ve been kicked out, or they need a break. Sometimes the shelter receives referrals from the gang unit about trafficking victims, but oftentimes these teenagers simply need respite from tension with their parents or guardians. The teen shelter can be the difference between family counseling and safe shelter or a pathway to trafficking and abuse. Our long-term housing, a combination of transitional living, rapid re-housing, and host homes, supports young people to pursue a promising future rather than fall prey to traffickers or be driven to trade sex for shelter.
Our community-based programs served as a response to local law enforcement who reported gangs recruiting kids as young as 12 years old. Our safe youth projects and teen centers teach kids about gangs, drugs, and what to expect within a healthy relationship. As of last year, 100% of kids in our Safe Youth Projects stayed gang-free. This partnership goes beyond gang prevention — it’s about support. “Parents wish the best for their children, but they are vulnerable, too,” Navarro explains, “we are extra eyes and ears for this population.”
When we attack homelessness, we confront a vital issue in and of itself — we open the door for young people to focus on what matters most. Yet as soon as we pull back the curtain of homelessness we realize we’ve done much more: we’ve attacked human trafficking, we’ve attacked sexual abuse, we’ve attacked survival sex.
There is much to be done, and there is much you can do. Show your support for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) a piece of administration that funds organizations, Second Story included, who work with homeless youth. You can educate yourself on the issues surrounding the sexual exploitation of young people and homelessness. This toolkit from MANY provides helpful information on human trafficking and vulnerable groups. Finally, you can come to an Open Door Information Session to learn about Second Story’s work and the youth we serve.
This is happening in our communities, to our young people. According to Detective Woolf in an interview with Local DMV news, police have identified trafficking at every high school in Northern Virginia. And in January of 2017, 377 people under the age of 24 were homeless just in Fairfax County. It’s an undeniable connection, but we can break it. When we provide options for safe and stable shelter we starve the supply and interrupt the cycle. Second Story understands homelessness as a root cause of sexual exploitation, and we’re digging deeper.