Addressing survivors’ critical need for affordable housing
A model program in Chicago expands housing options for trafficking survivors
Survivors of human trafficking face enormous challenges as they seek to rebuild their lives. Finding a safe place to live is one of the most essential, necessary steps toward rehabilitation and, for many, it is one of the most difficult.
“There is a significant lack of housing for people who are leaving their [trafficking] situation. It’s much analogous to victims of domestic violence when there wasn’t safe housing many years ago,” Mary Howard, chief resident services officer at the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), told WBEZ Chicago. While housing authorities can prioritize certain groups of people, their resources are often limited.
To address the problem, CHA partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to secure housing vouchers for 60 human trafficking survivors over three years. Since the program’s launch in 2016, six survivors have been referred for housing vouchers. Once approved, these survivors will work with agencies to find a permanent place to live.
The program taps into the Housing Choice Voucher program, a federal assistance program for vulnerable populations in the private market. The vouchers, which help residents pay rent in the private market, are managed by local public housing agencies, which determine eligibility and may establish local preferences.
To start, Chicago set aside some of its vouchers to serve those referred from agencies providing comprehensive social services to survivors of human trafficking. It is the first program of its kind. The team behind it hopes it can be a model for other communities, despite the perennial challenge of securing funding.
“Vouchers are a very precious resource,” says Antonio R. Riley, former Midwest regional administrator for HUD. Just because a local authority may identify a new population they want to support does not mean they receive more vouchers. “There is not a floodgate of new federal funds to provide these vouchers,” he says.
There are ways around these limits, however, and a big part of doing so is simply initiating a conversation with the right stakeholders. “The potential is there,” says Angela Green, region V administrator for the Administration of Children and Families under HHS, which partnered with HUD on the voucher program. “There are ways to broker that conversation with housing authorities.”
The representatives from CHA, HUD, and the Administration of Children and Families recommend these tips for civic leaders looking to start similar programs in their communities.
- Reach out. Find the experts who understand the impact of human trafficking in your community and ask them for help and advice. Green recommends asking the regional HUD office to help coordinate contact with local housing authorities. “Getting that conversation started can have a big impact on a public housing authority’s policies,” she says. Direct communication also helps established organizations understand the needs and how they can help. “So many different advocacy groups that support different constituencies ask us for different things,” says Howard. “But it really does enable us to take a look at our policies and see what currently makes sense and what we can accommodate.”
- Demonstrate the need. Public housing authorities are willing to listen to the needs of their community when determining housing preferences. When asked why programs like CHA’s did not exist in other communities, Howard responds “Public housing authorities are given a plan, but it’s really up to every public housing authority to look at their community and prioritize what they provide.” Some other housing authorities may not understand that human trafficking is a pressing issue, or the uniqueness of survivors of trafficking.” Communicating the urgency of the issue is crucial. CHA’s voucher initiative was a product of listening to experts in the community. “We reached out to the various service providers and had them walk us through the whole issue of human trafficking,” Riley says.
- Build partnerships. Successfully replicating and sustaining the CHA model requires the joint effort of multiple stakeholders. Partnering with service providers who serve populations with similar safe housing needs—domestic violence victims’ advocates, for example—can help demonstrate need to local housing authorities. Additionally, partnerships between service providers, housing authorities, and landlords can ensure stable housing and continuing care for survivors beyond being approved for housing vouchers.