The Overlap of Human Trafficking and Runaway and Homeless Youth

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July 16, 2020

Human trafficking transcends demographic categories. Its 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 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 those at high-risk , with “a higher susceptibility to victimization and human trafficking.” Researchers are finding that running away significantly increases young people’s risk of commercial sexual exploitation as well as labor trafficking. Therefore, reducing runaway incidents is crucial to prevent young people from becoming homeless and falling into trafficking situations.

There are known risk factors that contribute to youth running away, including family dynamics, family violence, bullying, 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, and very little options to meet their basic needs, they become potential targets for sex and labor trafficking.

“Homelessness puts young people at risk for trafficking,” says Susan Frankel, Chief Executive Officer 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.”

The Extent of the Overlap

NRS’ data reveal the close connection between running away and vulnerability to trafficking. Their report, National Trends on Youth in Crisis in the United States 2007-2017, reveals that trading sex for something of value among RHY has gone up 100%. The 2016 report based on data from FYSB’s Street Outreach Program found that about 36% of RHY traded sex for a place to stay, or another need. And while specific data for young people are not available, labor trafficking is the most common type of trafficking in the world, and preliminary research, shared by the Polaris Project, indicates that nearly 1 in 10 youth experiencing homelessness also experience labor trafficking. A separate study of services at Covenant House New Jersey found that 51% of the identified cases of trafficked youth were cases of labor trafficking.

Impediments to Care

RHY seeking shelter or other services experience the intake or screening process, where many programs identify those who are at higher risk of being trafficked or potential youth victims of trafficking. This is an essential step, but often these screening practices are lengthy and require an expert in human trafficking to interpret or administer. For example, the Trafficking Victim Identification Tool (TVIT) can take more than 60 minutes to complete. This long questioning process may retraumatize a young trafficking survivor if not implemented properly, or make it difficult to easily and quickly identify a potential victimization or a youth at high-risk for trafficking. Thus, RHY who are victims or at high risk for trafficking may not connect with those who could provide assistance and support. Screening processes can assist service providers, youth serving organizations, and law enforcement in building a rapport with the youth as well as assessing youth for suspected victimization or vulnerability to future victimization. 

Action Steps for a Positive Path Forward

One way to better identify RHY who are at risk of or are victims of sex or labor trafficking is to implement a user-friendly instrument to screen for young people‘s life experiences, including trafficking and exploitation. By doing so, RHY can be more efficiently and directly connected to the appropriate services. In 2019, FYSB RHY grantee Covenant House introduced a new screening tool for RHY based on a study conducted by Covenant House New Jersey and others. This instrument, the Quick Youth Indicators for Trafficking (QYIT), was developed based on the five questions from the TVIT with the highest odds-ratios for determining trafficking combined with trauma-informed, more conversational language from the Human Trafficking Interview and Assessment Measure (HTIAM)-14. The QYIT can be used by agencies to detect and serve RHY with labor or sex trafficking experiences.


Another important next step is to implement and expand trauma-informed interventions training for all service providers who work with RHY, including law enforcement, so they can utilize trauma-informed care (TIC) principles while working with RHY who may also be victims of human trafficking. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines TIC as “a strengths-based service delivery approach that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.”

In the FYSB resource Human Trafficking in Youth-serving Programs: A Blueprint for Organizations Working with Street Youth, Homeless Youth, and Youth at Risk, researchers identify three major steps that youth-serving organizations can take to better serve this population:

  • Develop specialized training to build the staff capacity on human trafficking and how this issue impacts the youth they serve.
  • Improve staff ability to identify and respond appropriately to potential youth victims of trafficking.
  • Understand how to make effective referrals in response to the needs of youth trafficking victims, including medical, legal, mental health, substance use, and other kinds of services and treatment.

Runaway Prevention

It is also important to prevent young people from running away or becoming homeless in the first place.  By integrating trauma-informed and positive youth development principles into existing program activities, youth serving organizations will build youth’s basic life skills and protective factors to help youth deal with overwhelming life situations. Additionally, youth serving organizations can help build young people’s resilience and ability to seek help before running away. The NRS offers a free, bilingual (English-Spanish) evidence-based, runaway-prevention curriculum, Let’s Talk, to help youth services providers, teachers, parents, and other caregivers or youth advocates speak to young people about alternatives to running away. As with all NRS resources and services, it reflects the reality that runaway prevention is a process that includes family, peers, 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.

By understanding the impact of human trafficking among RHY, we can finally start to understand the importance of increasing runaway prevention and integrating effective interventions for specific populations, such as screening processes for RHY settings and specialized training for service providers working with RHY.  

About RHY Issue Briefs

Issue Briefs, developed by the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families, provide information about runaway and homeless youth and the issues that affect them.

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