THE BLOG

Want to Fight Trafficking? Fight Homelessness

02/21/2014 11:38 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

There's a homeless girl in our study of youth sex trafficking whom we know only as Participant #2. When she was five, she was sexually abused by a man who gave her drug-addicted mother money in exchange. When she was 11, she ran away from home. Because she had no one to stay with, she merely escaped from one form of sexual abuse into another. A pimp took control of her life, and made her sell her body for his profit.

If we want to fight the sexual exploitation of young people, we absolutely must fight youth homelessness. Kids who don't have a safe place to stay enter a direct pipeline to the pimps and exploiters who recognize their desperation and are waiting to prey on them.

Covenant House New York's trafficking study, recently completed with Fordham University, showed that almost a quarter of the homeless young people surveyed had been commercially sexually exploited, either by being trafficked or by having to trade sex for something of value, usually a safe place to stay. Half of the kids who engaged in commercial sex said they would not have done so if they had had safe shelter. Covenant House New York provides shelter and services to 3,000 young people each year, which means about 700 of them may have been exploited sexually. And that's the estimate for kids living in just one program, on one block, in one city. The scope of the problem nationally is staggering.

Kids who don't have shelter are easy pickings for a friendly, flirtatious guy -- often called a Romeo pimp -- who offers a meal, a new outfit and a party to attend. The attention and warm shelter can be far more inviting to a teenager than a night on a cold park bench, especially if that kid is estranged from family and starved for affection. Pimps often hang out where homeless kids congregate -- bus stations, pizza parlors near shelters, the subway -- eager to tell kids there isn't room for them at the shelters.

And, quite frankly, there isn't. On any given night, there are 100 kids on waiting lists for shelter in New York City. In New York City there are only 253 government-funded beds every night for the approximately 3,800 kids who need them. If we can't keep them safe inside, there are people waiting to take advantage of their desperate circumstances.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office last month, he has taken a big step in the right direction and offered city funding for 76 additional beds for homeless young people. He has done more to create safe shelter for unaccompanied homeless teenagers in two months than many of his contemporaries across the country during their much longer, undistinguished tenures.

But on the state level, there are even fewer resources available to homeless kids than there were at the beginning of the recession. Since 2007-2008, New York State's investment in services for homeless youth has decreased 59 percent, to $2.3 million this fiscal year, a tiny fraction of the state budget, especially as the state is in line to amass a $300 million surplus this year. It is an appalling blight on the records of state leaders of both parties -- our most vulnerable kids deserve much better from them, and from all of us.

Sexually exploited kids are notoriously difficult to count. A 2007 study by the state Office of Children and Family Services found 2,652 children who had been sexually exploited for someone else's profit, and a study a year later by the Center for Court Innovation and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found 3,946 in New York City alone. But there are fewer than 50 beds designated for young trafficking survivors in New York State.

We are proud to work with kids in many states across the country, including New York, the first state to pass a Safe Harbor law, which recognizes that kids who have been sexually exploited for profit must be considered victims in need of services, not criminals. We are proud that Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an improvement to that law last month [jan], extending that protection to 16- and 17-year-olds as well, and we are grateful to Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, and Andrew Lanza, R-Staten Island, for sponsoring that bill. We are grateful to state, local and federal law enforcement officials for rescuing 16 underage children from being trafficked for sex, during the ramp up to the Super Bowl.

Now we call on State leaders to implement these excellent laws, by providing the funding to enable young victims to benefit from the services that Albany says they are due. New Yorkers have worked hard to pass a thoughtful package of legislation to help sexually exploited children; we can't abuse them further by refusing to put programs in place for them.

New York's children need a stronger safety net: at least 25 long-term, residential treatment center beds for sexually exploited children, 40 crisis shelter "Safe House" beds for victms of human trafficking, an additional 100 beds for homeless kids with nowhere else to turn, as well as outreach services, mental health care, and a service coordinator in each of the new trafficking courts. Please join me in signing a petition asking for this investment, here.

New York has precedent-setting laws to protect the young sexually-exploited victim. It is time we break more ground by backing them up with funding for promised services, so we can help survivors of human trafficking work towards the bright futures they deserve.