Ryan: Ensure housing to protect kids from sex traffickers
Street outreach and crisis counselors see it every day -- the degradation homeless youth in New York City suffer at the hands of the pimps, traffickers, and johns who buy and sell them for profit.
At Covenant House, working with Fordham University, we've just completed one of the largest human trafficking studies among homeless teens in New York history, and my worst fears have been confirmed. In interviews with almost 200 randomly selected homeless youth over the last year, we found that 48 percent of those who engaged in commercial sexual activity said they did it because they did not have a place to stay.
Almost one out of every four homeless young people we interviewed were at some point in their lives either victims of trafficking or had engaged in survival sex: trading sex acts to meet basic needs like food or shelter. Kids who lacked a caring, supportive adult in their life and who had no means to earn an income were particularly vulnerable to such exploitation. Some 78 percent of the trafficking victims had been sexually abused earlier in their lives.
More than 40 percent of the young people in the study were older than 18 when they first traded sex for something of value. Too often, the public tends to look at these older adolescents as guilty criminals, rather than as young people who have grown up with constant trauma who were left to survive on the streets.
It is clear to me that if we want to reduce the number of young people who are trafficked -- and who doesn't? -- we need to attack the problems of supply and demand. Too many of us, including the public and policy-makers, focus just on the demand side of this nightmare, fighting important battles to detect, arrest, prosecute and punish those pimps, johns, gangs and cartels that buy and sell young bodies, while deterring others who may do so next.
That's critical, but the truth is we will never arrest our way out of this. We cannot effectively end the exploitation of young people if we do not focus on the root causes and conditions of their vulnerability. And that means we have to ensure stable housing for many more kids than we currently do, so they won't have to make impossible choices between shelter and dignity, between shelter and innocence, between shelter and safety.
Kevin Ryan is the president of Covenant House, a privately funded agency helping homeless youth. The full study can be viewed at www.covenanthouse.org.