Eighteen-year-old Julie told me in no uncertain terms how she got involved in prostitution. "The situation was forcing me," she said. "I just couldn't do the homeless thing. I just couldn't stand to be on the streets anymore."
No homeless kid sells his or her body to a john by choice. A recent study by Covenant House New York and Fordham University found that almost one in four of surveyed homeless youth were either victims of trafficking or felt they needed to trade sex in order to survive. Almost half of them said that not having a place to stay was a main reason for their trafficking exploitation. All of them regretted having to trade their bodies.
In a few weeks, the world is coming to Rutherford, N.J., for the Super Bowl. While there are no firm numbers of how much the forced sex and labor trade expands during the week of the Super Bowl, the influx of hundreds of thousands of visitors means more homeless kids may be put at risk. And make no mistake, vulnerable kids are at risk. This week's announcement by New Jersey's acting Essex County prosecutor of indictments against four individuals for allegedly trafficking a 15-year-old girl for months across the state, forcing her to have sex with strangers, makes that crystal clear.
We already know from our outreach efforts there are a large number of pimps who hang out and recruit near bus and train stations and specific shops and fast food places where homeless youth are known to congregate. They ensnare thousands of kids each year: In New York City alone, 2,200 child victims of human trafficking are discovered annually, with another 400 upstate, ranking New York fourth after California, Texas, and Florida, for the number of minor victims.
I suspect that prostitutes, mostly women, will be brought into the New York/New Jersey area for the Super Bowl on February 2. Many of the young trafficking victims Covenant House serves have told stories of being taken on "the circuit," moved from city to city, based on where the conventioneers or sports fans were gathering. It certainly makes sense that pimps would follow the demand for sex-for-sale, with the added benefit to them of keeping their workers moving from place to place, steps ahead of the law, disconnected from the communities and the people who could help them escape and build a safer life.
At Covenant House, we see that every single instance of trafficking leaves behind damaged souls and bodies, particularly when the trafficked person is underage. As is so often the case, many of these kids have already confronted the steepest of challenges; they are survivors of homelessness, long-term foster care, broken families, and other circumstances that make it very difficult to build a safe new life.
Prevention efforts of advocates and law enforcement officials for February 2 are in full swing, and I commend these efforts. At Covenant House in New York City and New Jersey, we are ramping up our outreach efforts to protect vulnerable children from harm, and our shelters will be open 24 hours a day for any youth in need of shelter.
There is good news on the anti-trafficking front. Much advocacy work is being done to bring about stricter punishments for those who traffic children and for the adults who buy their bodies. Just this month, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed critically important legislation to protect all of New York's commercially sexually exploited children, extending the ground-breaking Safe Harbor Act to 16- and 17-year-olds. In addition to being the first state in the country to pass a version of Safe Harbor, which helps minors who have been commercially sexually exploited receive social services, instead of jail sentences, New York has continued its leadership as the first state to develop Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, which specialize in prostitution and trafficking cases. We have the legal framework in New York to help all commercially exploited youth. Now, we need services.
We know all too well that there are not enough beds for homeless young people across the country, and when vulnerable youth do not have access to shelter and services, there is a pimp or trafficker lying in wait to lure them. We have put together a petition asking Gov. Cuomo to include $20.2 million to provide shelter and services for trafficking victims and homeless youth. Please consider signing it here, because clearly, more support for outreach and safe shelters for homeless youth is critical. Let's make it harder for traffickers to stay in business, by keeping vulnerable kids off the streets in the first place.
It is clear that advocates for victims of child sexual exploitation have our work cut out for us, during Super Bowl week and every day of the year. No child should be left to fend for himself or herself on the streets of our cities. Most of us have been blessed with moms, dads, grandparents, or other people who believe wholeheartedly that we need to be kept safe when we are children. For the thousands who have been denied this basic right, it is our moral responsibility to protect and nurture them.
No child should be forced to sell his or her body to strangers, many times a night, for someone else's profit.
Follow Kevin M. Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/covhouseprez