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A seat at the table: Cities can ensure youth and young adults are shaping policies that reduce vulnerability to exploitation and human trafficking

By Darla Bardine, National Network for Youth

There are many intersections between youth homelessness and human trafficking. Author Darla Bardine, Executive Director of the National Network for Youth (NN4Y), shares information published in an important white paper on the topic, Responding to Youth Homelessness: A Key Strategy for Preventing Human Trafficking. NN4Y has been a public education and policy advocacy organization dedicated to the prevention and eradication of youth homelessness in America for over 40 years.

An estimated 4.2 million young people (ages 13-25) experience homelessness annually, including 700,000 unaccompanied youth ages 13 to 17, according to research from Chapin Hall at The University of Chicago. Many of those young people will become victims of sex or labor trafficking. Research from numerous studies have found trafficking rates among youth and young adults experiencing homelessness ranging from 19% to 40%. Although the varying populations and methods of these studies do not allow for a definitive number, this means, using the lower end estimates, that about 800,000 of the youth and young adults who experience homelessness in a year may also be victims of sex or labor trafficking in cities, suburbs, rural communities, and American Indian Reservations across the country.

Some youth experiencing homelessness are even more vulnerable to trafficking than these incredibly high numbers suggest, and interviews with these youth illustrate some common themes and pathways:

  • Lack of basic needs, such as not having a safe place to sleep at night, often play a role in their trafficking experiences.
  • Homelessness and exploitation begin early, often well before age 18.
  • LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable, and experience trafficking at higher rates than other youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Youth who have been in foster care also experience trafficking at higher rates than other youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Girls and young women are more likely to experience trafficking, but boys and young men also experience high levels of trafficking.
  • Youth experiencing homelessness who have also been victims of sex trafficking are more likely to have mental health and substance use issues, to have experienced physical and emotional abuse by parents or guardians, and to have a history of sexual abuse.

City leadership’s role in responding to youth homelessness and reducing vulnerability to exploitation City leaders have a critical role to play to ensure multiple agencies and community stakeholders collaborate to develop solutions that are youth-informed and tailored to a community’s specific needs. City government can lead in bringing together youth service providers, McKinney-Vento homelessness liaisons and other stakeholders including – most importantly – youth and young adults with lived experience, to identify and map out who is doing what and what gaps need to be filled.

Our organization has developed a resource to help local and state government agencies and community-based organizations alike to operate based on the best available knowledge and practices about preventing homelessness and caring for youth and young adults who become homeless. A group of youth homelessness providers in the city of Chicago used this Proposed System to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in its planning, which included robust input from youth and young adults. One of many valuable insights that youth provided was that 18 to 24-year-olds are not likely to go to a traditional homeless shelter because they don’t identify with the men and women in those shelters, some of whom are much older and experience chronic homelessness due to mental health issues. As part of the planning process, the city and service providers were called upon to open more overnight drop-in centers specifically designed for youth and young adults.


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Cities play an important role in funding youth-appropriate housing and services and should also be fierce advocates for greater state and federal funding. Cities can also lead by passing ordinances based on model statutes developed by our organization and the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.

Policy and practice recommendations

The pathways from homelessness to trafficking can and should be disrupted with policy and practice changes, including cross-sector collaboration, as well as increased resources at all levels of government. Many of the recommendations below—and in this more comprehensive white paper — focus on providing services and support to address youth homelessness and to meet youth and family needs.

Housing and homelessness services agencies should address homelessness, and therefore reduce vulnerability to trafficking, by quickly and appropriately responding to a young person’s homelessness, with a range of options designed to meet the needs of youth and young adults in different circumstances. This includes the ability to access housing for youth who may face the most barriers, such as poor credit histories or juvenile/criminal records. Providers serving youth experiencing homelessness and victims of trafficking already collaborate closely in many communities across the country, and homelessness providers are increasingly recognizing how many of the youth they serve have experienced trafficking. These efforts should be continued, informed by the research shared above and supported by federal and local policies, and funding should continue to increase. All professionals working with or on behalf of young people experiencing homelessness and/or trafficking should receive education about the intersection of homelessness and trafficking.

Child welfare systems should provide services that can allow youth to safely stay with or rejoin family members when possible, and otherwise provide placements that meet youths’ needs. Responses to youth who “run” from care should not be punitive, and every effort should be made to keep youth with the same caseworker until they exit system custody. Child welfare agencies should also provide transition planning that prepares youth to become independent and self-supporting adults, and they should provide services and education to youth in ways that can interrupt the pathways to homelessness and trafficking described above.

Education systems should be proactively identifying and providing services to youth experiencing, or at risk of homelessness. This includes educating teachers, counselors, administrators, and McKinney-Vento liaisons about the warning signs and prevalence of homelessness and trafficking among their students. Federally funding McKinney-Vento liaisons at appropriate levels and supporting early childhood education are key to these efforts.

Behavioral health agencies should provide in-home and residential services from clinicians with appropriate expertise and experience. Community-based care is ideal when it meets a young person’s needs, but for youth who do not have stable housing, or require more intensive treatment, having residential programs with targeted services is essential. Justice and law enforcement agencies should ensure youth are not criminalized for survival acts or in misguided attempts to “protect” them.

Courts should avoid ordering secure confinement for survival acts – such as survival sex, shoplifting food and basic life needs, trespassing, and being out past curfew – based on the known harms of incarceration. What these young people need is crisis intervention services and access to housing, not a criminal record that will make their transition out of homelessness or trafficking even more challenging. Law enforcement and governments should also ensure practice and policy address the growing role of technology in exploitation.

All agencies serving youth who may be experiencing homelessness and/or trafficking should ensure their own staff are knowledgeable about how to work effectively with youth who’ve experienced trauma. They should also work with other local agencies (e.g., schools, behavioral health clinics, other social services) to provide information about signs of homelessness and trafficking, as well as resources to address them.

All stakeholders should ensure the above recommendations are carried out with a focus on reaching and serving those who most often experience homelessness and trafficking, including LGBTQ young people, youth of color, young people who have experienced abuse, and young people who haven’t graduated from high school. They should also ensure that policy and practice responses are designed and implemented in collaboration with young people who have lived expertise.

If cities invest in programs and change policies to transform these recommendations into reality, fewer young people will experience homelessness, and fewer young people will be vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation. Homelessness and trafficking are experiences that do not define who a person is, nor do they indicate anything about a person’s aptitude, abilities, and dreams for their future. Our cities will be stronger when they intervene in positive and productive ways in the lives of these young people – we can’t afford not to.

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About Pathways to Freedom

Pathways to Freedom calls on cities to take urgent action to prevent human trafficking and address the unmet needs of survivors. This third challenge of the Partnership for Freedom focuses on challenging assumptions, spurring innovative city-wide responses, and sharing local solutions. Humanity United and the NoVo Foundation lead this final challenge in collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities.

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