Homelessness and Human Trafficking: Overlapping Forms of Exploitation

What is the connection?

Homelessness and human trafficking are two significant and overlapping issues that impact many of the same individuals and communities. A government report states, “people experiencing homelessness—especially youth and young adults—are at increased risk of being trafficked. Conversely, experiencing human trafficking places youth and others at a greater risk for becoming homeless.” ALL IN: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness (Dec. 2022), p. 68. “Additionally, survivors of human trafficking are often part of marginalized populations and left financially insecure [and homeless], which, in turn, makes them susceptible to re-exploitation.” Id.

While they differ in terms of the level of agency of affected individuals (the degree of control or power that an individual has over their circumstances) and the forms of exploitation they experience, homelessness and human trafficking are both symptoms of larger systemic issues related to economic inequality, discrimination, and exploitation. And in many cases, the same individuals are victims of both homelessness and human trafficking.

Homeless women face a heightened risk of various forms of victimization. They frequently endure high levels of victimization before, during, and after being homeless. A significant percentage of homeless women have reported being raped, sometimes repeatedly. One of our homeless friends said that he personally knows a dozen homeless women who have been victims of sex trafficking in his city; and he said their victimization is often perpetrated by drug dealers who also prey upon other homeless people in the area. So it is important to consider the causes of homelessness and the plight of victims of human trafficking and how those two issues are interrelated.

Homelessness is a pervasive issue in the United States, where over half a million people are homeless. It refers to the state of having no stable or permanent place of abode, forcing individuals to live in temporary shelters, abandoned buildings, or on the streets. Many of our friends sleep directly on the hard concrete sidewalk or on a park bench. One of the primary causes of homelessness in America is the lack of affordable housing, particularly in urban areas. The high cost of living in cities makes it difficult for low-income individuals to find decent housing, forcing them to live in substandard conditions. Homelessness can also result from job loss, mental health issues, or substance abuse, among other factors. These issues are often interconnected, leading to a cycle of poverty and homelessness that is difficult to break.

On the other hand, human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, where people are forced or coerced into labor or sexual exploitation. It is a global problem that affects millions of people, particularly women and children. The primary cause of human trafficking is the demand for cheap labor and illicit sexual services, which creates a market for the exploitation of vulnerable individuals, including men and boys, as well as women and girls.

Human trafficking can occur both domestically and internationally, with victims being transported across state lines or international borders for exploitation. Victims of human trafficking often experience physical and emotional abuse, isolation, and trauma, and may be forced to work long hours in dangerous and degrading conditions. Drug abuse is often involved.

While there are many clear distinctions between homelessness and the plight of human trafficking victims, there are also some similarities between human trafficking and homelessness. Both of these issues can be seen as symptoms of larger systemic problems related to economic inequality, discrimination, and exploitation. In both cases, affected individuals face significant barriers to social mobility and suffer from a lack of access to basic resources and services.

Unfortunately, homelessness and human trafficking are often directly linked, as individuals experiencing homelessness are often more vulnerable to being trafficked due to their economic circumstances, physical surroundings, higher prevalence of addiction and mental health issues, and lack of social support networks. Human trafficking often involves sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation and victimization. Many sex trafficking victims also suffer sexual exploitation, which can act as a precursor to sex trafficking. Typically, children or vulnerable adults who are forced into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation are the victims of sex trafficking. Unfortunately, many homeless women are victimized.

Vulnerable homeless women and teens are often victims of human trafficking.

For example, it has been reported that nearly all homeless mothers have experienced severe physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Homeless women are vulnerable to attacks or exploitation in various settings, especially while sleeping outdoors on the street. (Although trafficking is often hidden from view, we have at least seen, with our own eyes, serious sexual harassment of homeless women during our weekly visits with unhoused people.) This vulnerability includes not only physical danger but also psychological distress. Trafficking or other forms of sexual exploitation worsen the psychological distress and undermine homeless women’s chances of achieving stability and a better quality of life.

As such, homelessness greatly heightens women’s risk of sexual harassment, victimization, or exploitation. In our experience, the current system seems to lack adequate resources to prevent homelessness, protect vulnerable girls and women, or support their recovery. Therefore, it is imperative for government agencies and nonprofits to provide them with comprehensive services and support.

To address these issues, a multi-pronged approach is necessary. For homelessness, policies that increase access to affordable housing, create job opportunities, and provide mental health and addiction rehabilitation services are crucial. Additionally, addressing the root causes of economic inequality and discrimination is essential for creating a more just society. Our leaders must consider the broader social structures that contribute to homelessness and human trafficking. The government and community organizations can work together to provide education and training programs, support social entrepreneurship, and promote inclusive economic growth.

At Brighten the Corner, we believe that there must be increased awareness and education about the dangers of human trafficking, enforcement of laws against trafficking and exploitation, and readily-available support and resources for victims of trafficking, including homeless women. Because demand seems to fuel supply, the government must address the demand for cheap labor and illicit sexual services that drive human trafficking. Federal, state, and local government agencies and nonprofits should do more to promote ethical business practices and the creation of alternative economic opportunities for vulnerable communities, as well as promoting education and legal penalties designed to reduce the demand for prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation.

As we have seen, homelessness and human trafficking are interrelated. They are complex societal issues that require a multi-pronged approach to address. By understanding the root causes of these problems and how they are connected, we can work towards implementing practical solutions to create a more just and equitable society for all. Brighten the Corner helps to address such issues by making friends with people who are homeless, visiting them every week, listening to them, supporting their needs, and showing that we care about them personally.

Brighten the Corner is helping to create a world where everyone has access to the basic necessities of life, including shelter, food, and security—and where economic exploitation, sexual exploitation, victimization, and discrimination are no longer tolerated. If you want to do something about homelessness but don’t feel that you are in a position to get involved directly, you can still play an important role by supporting the work of Brighten the Corner. Together, we can make a difference and create a brighter future for all. Everyone can do something to help. Brighten the corner where you are!

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