Local reporters are now focusing on a story from Northern Virginia about a young 12 year old runaway who was provided food and shelter by a gang who then prostituted her repeatedly. While this story is making headlines locally, it is unfortunately not an isolated incident. The commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is all too common among unaccompanied homeless young girls and boys.
Sexually exploiting children often doesn’t require violence, it involves recruitment. It can begin in what appears to be a nurturing relationship or in one that helps the child meet his or her needs. It also includes “survival sex” – a term that refers to homeless children and youth exchanging sex for a place to stay or money to meet their basic needs. It may appear that children and youth are making their own choices to engage in survival sex, but it is just another form of commercial sexual exploitation.
Why are runaway and homeless youth so vulnerable to being commercially sexually exploited?
- They are often physically vulnerable because they lack a safe place to stay,
- They are in desperate need of meeting their basic needs
- They are often emotionally vulnerable and in crisis
Across the nation, there is a dire shortage of shelter space to accommodate unaccompanied homeless children and youth safely. The lack of an adequate emergency crisis response to runaway and homeless children and youth increases their vulnerability to being victimized. There even appears to be a dearth of political will to change this.
There are clear steps we can take to make progress in ending youth homelessness and their vulnerability to exploitation:
- First, localities must take purposeful action to count children and youth residing on the streets as part of a local Point-In-Time (PIT) effort or in a separate effort. Data from programs serving homeless youth should be included in the local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). Understanding the nuances and scale of youth homelessness is necessary to ensure appropriate interventions are developed to meet their needs.
- Second, we need to establish a rapid response to youth homelessness. Children and youth who have run away need help to safely reunify with family or connect to other caring adults in their lives. Those who cannot safely reunify with family or friends should be quickly connected to longer-term programs that provide housing and supportive services.
- Third, we need to ensure that the programs we establish to serve youth are accessible to all youth. We need to be very careful to establish program rules and requirements that screen in – and not screen out – those at greatest risk of long-term homelessness, including youth dealing with substance abuse and mental health disabilities who may be at greater risk of CSEC. It is not acceptable to allow children and youth to remain on the streets until they are “ready” to receive or comply with services.
It is not a climate where calls to expand services are warmly welcomed but runaway children and youth are in danger and cannot, and should not, be asked to wait for a better fiscal environment. Action is needed now to improve our ability to effectively and rapidly respond to youth in need, improve our data, and demand more from our public partners to protect and serve vulnerable children and youth.
For more information on youth homelessness, please visit the Alliance website.
Photo courtesy of squidoo.