The following story is a part of a special series that highlights the release of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking’s research report, The Colorado Project 2023. This series provides a platform for the diverse voices and partnerships working together to end human trafficking across our state. Discover why trust, equity, and effectiveness are critical elements of the anti-trafficking movement.
Traffickers tend to be deliberate with their tactics. By carefully choosing targets that are isolated or vulnerable, they can use false promises, coercion, threats, and violence to entrap them — without exposing themselves or their operation. Some of the most vulnerable populations in Colorado today are those who are unhoused or facing housing insecurity.
The Rise of Homelessness & Human Trafficking in Colorado
According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless 2022 report, chronic homelessness has increased by over 130% in the last decade. This mirrors a comparable rise in rent and home prices in our state. The skyrocketing cost of living is forcing more and more people into unsustainable housing situations, which puts them at a higher risk of being exploited by traffickers. Though approximations vary, the Colorado Coalition report estimates that between 10,000–53,000 individuals are currently experiencing homelessness in Colorado.
Without stable housing, financial resources, or a strong support system, unhoused individuals may be put in a position to take risks they might not otherwise take. Imagine that you’ve been living on the streets, with no idea where your next meal will come from. Hunger and sleeplessness gnaw at you. Desperation begins to take hold. You’re willing to do whatever you need to to survive. Traffickers know this and may target these individuals with promises of jobs, a warm bed, a good meal, and cash.
Trafficking Vulnerabilities for Unhoused Youth
Unhoused youth are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking — as soon as their first night experiencing homelessness. By definition, sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to make a person engage in commercial sex. But for children under 18, any commercial sexual activity is considered trafficking (whether or not there’s force, fraud, or coercion involved). In other words, the law says that minors can’t “choose” to be involved in commercial sex — if they are, it’s always a case of human trafficking.
Homelessness in youth is a growing problem across the country. More than 4.2 million youth ages 13-25 experience a period of homelessness in the U.S. each year, according to Covenant House. Their research revealed that 68% of youth who had either been trafficked or engaged in survival sex had done so while homeless, and that nearly 1 in 4 were approached for paid sex on their first night of homelessness.
Sex trafficking is not the only danger that youth experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity face. Labor trafficking is also common, as traffickers use promises of a steady job to exploit vulnerable individuals. According to the National Network for Youth, 81% of labor trafficking cases involved forced drug dealing. Factory work, domestic labor, construction, and agriculture are some of the industries where labor trafficking occurs in Colorado.
Stuck in an Exploitative Situation: Why It’s Hard for Survivors to Get Help
For many people experiencing homelessness who are in a trafficking situation, it can be hard to get help. Some may lack proper identification documents, making it harder for them to seek assistance or escape trafficking situations. In other cases, traffickers may confiscate documents to maintain control. In other words, housing insecurity is both a cause AND a consequence of trafficking.
The social stigmatization of homelessness is another significant barrier. Because of the discrimination these individuals face, others are less likely to notice or report signs of trafficking. This can further isolate victims and keep them trapped in exploitative situations.
Housing insecurity not only puts unhoused people at risk of being trafficked but can make it even more difficult for survivors to escape these situations. A study by Polaris found that 70% of survivors reported that one of their top needs, when they left their trafficking situation, was finding a safe place to stay. Without stable housing, survivors are at risk of being trafficked again. It also creates barriers to accessing the resources that can be critical to a survivor’s recovery; medical care, counseling, and employment are all more challenging to obtain without an address.
Stable housing offers survivors of human trafficking the chance to seek support, find community, and connect with others. So what’s the solution?
Supporting Survivors Through Widespread Anti-trafficking Training & More Housing Support
Homelessness and housing insecurity are complex issues and the result of numerous social and economic factors. To address it, partners across every sector will need to come together, from grassroots organizers to top-level policymakers. In our latest research initiative, The Colorado Project 2023, researchers asked participants what projects or programs they would implement in their partnerships to decrease human trafficking, and the most common choice was housing.
One key recommendation from The Colorado Project 2023 Action Plan surrounds prevention efforts that are inclusive of the housing sector: Anti-trafficking training should be provided to staff at shelters for people experiencing homelessness and staff who work with unhoused individuals or those at-risk of homelessness. By training professionals who closely interact with vulnerable populations, they can better identify the signs of human trafficking and intervene.
Furthermore, it is vital that policymakers implement programs that offer survivors access to safe and stable housing options, such as emergency shelters, transitional housing, or permanent supportive housing. These resources should also come with close ties to a range of supportive services, including counseling, legal assistance, and job training — to help survivors get back on their feet.
By addressing the underlying causes that lead to housing insecurity and providing more resources to individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, we can more effectively support survivors and make our communities safer. Together, we can end human trafficking.
The Colorado Project is a community-based, research-focused approach to ending human trafficking in Colorado. Led by the nonprofit the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT), The Colorado Project began in 2010 as a rigorous grassroots research project that helps us uncover what human trafficking looks like in Colorado, what has been done in the past to address it, and what we can do in the future to end it. LCHT released the third iteration of The Colorado Project results in October, 2023. This time, The Colorado Project 2023 revealed that cross-sector partnerships, staff training in key sectors such as healthcare and education, and addressing housing insecurity are key to ending human trafficking in Colorado.