May, 2023 Monthly Reflection

Human trafficking and homelessness

Sister Michelle Loisel, DC

We know that sex trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud, and/or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or to induce another individual to sell sex. Labor trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud, and/or coercion to induce another individual to work or provide service. Around us in the United States, Canada, and Latin America the most common forms of human trafficking are commercial sexual exploitation and labor trafficking.

Two main factors drive the spread of human trafficking: high profits and low risk. Like drug and arms trafficking, human trafficking is a market-driven criminal industry based on the principles of supply and demand. No country is exempt from this illicit enterprise.
Every year, traffickers generate more than $150 billion in profits by victimizing millions of people worldwide. Vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation, children and youth experiencing homelessness are prime targets of this lucrative and criminal industry.

Recently, I was asked by a member of the homelessness committee at the United Nations if I thought there is a correlation between homelessness and human trafficking.

Homelessness is both a driver and effect of human trafficking and vice-versa. It seems like there is a perspective in many societies that slavery is a relic of the past. However, “the buying and selling of women, men, and children for sexual exploitation is today’s most common form of slavery.”

Thus, sexual predators and criminals who are ‘trafficking in persons’ continue to capitalize on vulnerability by offering people ‘shelter’ and the opportunity to make a dollar or two by trafficking them into prostitution.

Research has found that trafficking among youth experiencing homelessness ranges from 19% to 40%. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, one in five runaway and homeless youth is a victim of human trafficking, which equates to 800,000 youth trafficked every year. (The Intersection of Child Sex Trafficking and Youth Homelessness)

Traffickers exploit potential victims’ fear of sleeping on the street, first by offering safe shelter as a coercive recruitment tactic then, as the situation progresses, by threatening to make them homeless as a means of control.

The Polaris Project, one of the largest organizations serving trafficking victims, includes runaway homeless youth among those at high-risk, with “a higher susceptibility to victimization and human trafficking.” Researchers are finding that running away significantly increases young people’s risk of commercial sexual exploitation as well as labor trafficking. Therefore, reducing runaway incidents is crucial to prevent young people from becoming homeless and falling into trafficking situations. Read more about housing and homelessness systems.

Sixty-four percent of survivor respondents to Polaris’s survey reported being homeless or experiencing unstable housing at the time they were recruited into their trafficking situation.

This issue brief from the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families discusses the overlap between youth homelessness and runaway incidents with human trafficking. Youth who run away are at considerable risk of homelessness and victimization, including through sex and labor trafficking. Read the full issue brief.

Traffickers utilize a number of recruitment tactics on those who are experiencing homelessness or are vulnerable to homelessness. Human trafficking and homelessness are negative effects of vulnerability, and each causes vulnerability to the other.

These indications show that there is a dark intricate web of abuse of human rights and exploitation of persons when homelessness and human trafficking intersect. A step towards a solution is zero homelessness.

I will add, eradication of trafficking and ending homelessness are possible if one embraces the principles of Catholic Social Teaching to address the structural, social, and economic inequalities. Principles of common good, preferential option for the poor, and solidarity can show the way for a culture of encounter. The foundations of these principles are grounded on the sanctity and dignity of the human person, for every human being is made out of love in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ. Human dignity is grounded in God’s creative love, and it invites us to love our neighbor. In Catholic Social Teaching love of neighbor demands justice, respect for human life from conception to death, and the provision of an enabling environment for authentic human development, for the flourishing of life.

Sister Michelle Loisel, DC