Human trafficking transcends demographic categories. Its victims and survivors span the spectrum of race, class, and geography. However, some populations are at greater risk for trafficking than others, and runaway and homeless youth (RHY) are certainly among the most vulnerable.
Youth who run away are at considerable risk of homelessness and victimization, including through sex and labor trafficking. The Polaris Project, one of the largest organizations serving trafficking victims, includes RHY among its list of populations with “a higher susceptibility to victimization and human trafficking.” And among researchers, it is now unquestioned that “Running away from home is a known risk factor for commercial sexual exploitation among youth.” The prevention of runaway incidents is clearly an effective way to prevent the recruitment of RHY into trafficking situations.
There are known risk factors that contribute to youth running away, including family dynamics, family violence, bullying, and sexual abuse and neglect. Some youth are asked by their parents to leave home. If these youth end up in the streets, without support networks, they are potential targets for being groomed and recruited into sex and labor trafficking.
“Homelessness puts young people at risk for trafficking,” says Susan Frankel, Executive Director of the National Runaway Safeline (NRS), the federal communication system for runaway and homeless youth. “It creates vulnerability, a need for survival, which means they can be targeted by traffickers. If we prevent youth from ending up on the streets, we can prevent them from getting caught up in that.”
Runaway prevention is fundamental to the NRS’s work. Nearly one third (31 percent) of youth who connect with the NRS do so before running away. But their data also reveals the close connect between running away and vulnerability to trafficking. Their recently released report, National Trends on Youth in Crisis in the United States 2007-2017, reveals that RHY dependence on the sex industry for survival has gone up 100 percent over the past 10 years. And a 2016 report based on data from FYSB’s Street Outreach Program found that about 36 percent of RHY had traded sex for money, a place to stay, or another need. This kind of transactional sex is considered trafficking when minors are involved, regardless of whether they consent.
Alarming as these figures are, Frankel says they may not tell the whole story.
“When a youth calls us, they are self-identifying their issue,” she adds. “They may not use the term ‘human trafficking’ or really even realize that that’s the situation they’re in. There might be family members involved; they might see it as something else. So that skews our numbers a bit.”
Communities are encouraged to discuss runaway prevention and other risks factors that put vulnerable youth at risk of running away. By integrating basic life skills to existing programs and building youth self-esteem, service providers can build young people’s resilience and ability to seek help before running away. The NRS also offers a free evidence-based runaway-prevention curriculum, Let’s Talk, to help teachers, parents, and other caregivers or youth workers speak to young people about alternative measures. As with all NRS products and guidelines, it reflects the reality that runaway prevention is a complex process that includes family and community dynamics. Prevention efforts should always take a young person’s entire life situation into account, and should include discussions about the reality and dangers of running away and becoming homeless.