The following article originally appeared in the Missing and Exploited Children’s Program Newsletter, October 1, 2012.
Although current data on the extent of youth homelessness are limited, previous studies have estimated that approximately 1.7 million youth under the age of 18 have run away or are homeless in the United States each year. Several factors contribute to young people leaving home. One of the primary factors is intense family conflict, which can take the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or non-acceptance of a youth’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
When young people are out of the home unaccompanied and trying to navigate life on the streets, they become susceptible to many horrors, including commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) and trafficking. Estimates are that some 2.2 percent of children under the age of 18 who have a runaway or homeless episode — approximately 39,000 children annually — are sexually assaulted or become victims of CSE.
The relationship between youth homelessness and CSE and/or trafficking arguably begins as soon as a youth leaves home. The Dallas Police Department has found that the more times a youth runs away from home, the more likely that youth is to be victimized. Unaccompanied youth living on the street are particularly vulnerable to such victimization because they are not in a position to meet their immediate needs for food, shelter and safety. This makes them a target for people who may exploit them. A study of shelter and street youth indicated that approximately 28 percent of street youth and 10 percent of youth in shelters reported trading sex (called survival sex) to meet their basic needs.
Oftentimes the discussion about sexual exploitation among homeless youth overlooks males, who are also at risk for CSE. Many of those who are exploited and recruited for trafficking self-identify as gay or bisexual. Although the dynamics of providing services and shelter to young men is different (including the response by the justice system), more gender inclusive policies must be developed to effectively house, treat and protect male survivors. Nationally, fewer than 100 beds are designed specifically to meet the needs of survivors of exploitation.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness believes that minimizing the time youth and young adults are homeless can reduce their risk of sexual exploitation. Communities can implement a number of strategies to achieve this goal. First, we can ensure that youth exiting the foster care and/or juvenile justice system are not discharged into homelessness. Thoughtful strategic planning can prevent that outcome. Second, we must improve our crisis response to runaway youth and youth on the street to help move them quickly into safety and out of harm’s way. Third, we can implement family intervention strategies that will help prevent youth from running away in the first place and help those who have run away to return home when it is safe to do so. Finally, we must increase investments in housing for youth who are unable to return home. All of our programs and services need to recognize the special needs of survivors of CSE and trafficking.