In Colorado, housing insecurity and homelessness are both causes of human trafficking and areas of greatest need for survivors. Lack of stable housing — and the underlying role of poverty — are major contributors to vulnerability that can lead to exploitative situations. This is particularly true among youth populations.
One study found that among shelter youth, about half were living and sleeping on the streets, and half were experiencing unstable or temporary housing in the form of couch surfing, foster care, group homes, or a hotel. This is a major issue because homeless youth experience an increased vulnerability to human trafficking. They may contend with a range of compounding issues such as poverty, unemployment, sexual abuse, and mental health struggles — all of which encourage a trafficker to offer to fill those gaps through offers of work, housing, and a support system.
One study found that among shelter youth, about half were living and sleeping on the streets, and half were experiencing unstable or temporary housing in the form of couch surfing, foster care, group homes, or a hotel.
The Polaris Project released a report in which 64 percent of respondents of a survivor survey were homeless or in unstable housing when they were recruited into a trafficking situation. A study from the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research discovered that 41 percent of youth who were sex trafficked were approached for sex on their very first night of being homeless. Similarly, 91 percent of youth at Covenant House sites — an agency providing service to homeless youth — were approached by someone with an income opportunity that seemed too good to be true.
Barriers to Housing Amplify Trafficking Risks
As of 2015, there were 6.4 million more low-income people than low-income housing units in the United States. This poses distinct challenges among low-income and marginalized youth populations trying to secure housing. In turn, the risks of exploitation are increased among these groups. LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented in trafficking situations compared to heterosexual youth, in part because they face greater barriers to housing and employment. In particular, bisexual youth found LGBTQ+ shelters to be unwelcoming towards people who did not identify as either gay or lesbian, and transgender youth struggled to find gender affirmative placement policies. To add further difficulties, the decrease in affordable housing in many parts of the nation has run parallel to the criminalization of homelessness in major U.S. cities. In addition to threatening basic human rights, these policies often lead to increased incidents with law enforcement and a lack of access to hygiene facilities that further complicates searches for employment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only created more challenges. A recent report from Polaris found that between the time period prior to shelter-in-place orders and April 2020, the number of cases in which people needed emergency shelter doubled. While HUD issued partial eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, those rule changes expired on July 24th and protection decisions were left up to individual states. The CDC issued a further ban on evictions on September 4, 2020 that was meant to be extended until the end of 2020, but in practice landlords are finding ways around the ban.
The Potential of Innovative Housing Programs
Housing insecurity contributes to an increased risk of human trafficking within all communities. It compromises protections for survivors who are emerging from exploitation. Innovative solutions within housing programs could be key to countering those realities. Some of that innovation could come from fairly simple rules changes. For example, agencies could expand the target population of those served to ensure that shelters and permanent housing options are inclusive of the entire LGBTQ+ community. Domestic violence shelters could also consider expanding the definition of domestic violence in order to include survivors of human trafficking and more efficiently serve the overlap of needs and experiences.
Many examples of innovation in housing programs already exist. In Colorado this includes daytime drop-in programs and community centers such as The Gathering Place, The Center, and Urban Peak. A few other leaders in Colorado working on this issue include:
- Colorado Village Collaborative in Denver: The Colorado Village Collaborative provides tiny home villages as a far less costly alternative to affordable housing units. Powered by values of solidarity and dignity, they are challenging systems that create inequity by constructing tiny home villages that are designed to “provide a pathway to stable housing” and use participatory governance to include villagers in decision making.
- CASA of the 7th Judicial District in Montrose: CASA of the 7th is currently developing a micro-home community as an affordable housing option to youth they work with as they turn 18. They are also partnering with the Colorado Workforce Center so that youth can participate in the construction of the homes and learn the trade.
- Bayaud Enterprises in Denver: Provides immediate relief services like their mobile laundry and shower truck. Additionaly, they connect individuals and families with Community Resource Navigators who help with access to programs, services, and employment resources.
During this January’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month, the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) applauds the efforts of these programs and anti-trafficking partners around Colorado. LCHT has consistently defined housing insecurity and homelessness as a root cause of trafficking, most recently in The Colorado Project 2.0. In our 2019 blog post which looked at housing and homelessness in Colorado, we affirmed the idea that more inclusive programs which address key issues like housing, transition services for youth aging out of foster care, substance abuse, and mental health are critical to helping end this crime.
Danielle Finger is a recent alumni from LCHT’s Leadership Development Program. She previously served in the Peace Corps in Rwanda and recently began a new temporary role as a contact tracer in support of containing COVID-19 in Colorado.