New Studies Find One-fifth Homeless Youth Are Victims of Human Trafficking

Researchers announced findings today from the largest-ever combined sample of homeless youth in the United States and Canada, revealing that nearly one-fifth are victims of human trafficking, including those trafficked for sex, labor, or both.  The dual studies by researchers at The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University (New Orleans) Modern Slavery Research Project, drew on interviews with 911 homeless youth across 13 cities, including 12 cities where homeless young people accessed services through Covenant House, between February 2014 and March 2017. Covenant House operates the largest network of residences and community service centers for homeless youth across the Americas, reaching more than 46,000 youth every year in 30 cities across six countries.

The researchers found that 19.4% of the interviewed youth were victims of human trafficking, with 15% having been trafficked for sex, 7.4% trafficked for labor, and 3% trafficked for both.  Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.  Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, debt bonding or slavery.

“Too many youth are desperate and alone on the streets.  Homelessness makes them vulnerable to traffickers,” said Covenant House President Kevin Ryan.  “We don’t have to live in a world where desperate kids are bought and sold.  If we want to reduce the number of youth who are trafficked, we have to end youth homelessness.  We can, we must, and we should.”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth were disproportionately affected.  Though they accounted for just 19.2% of the respondents interviewed, LGBTQ youth accounted for 33.8% of the sex trafficking victims, and 31.8% of those who engaged in the sex trade.

The studies encompassed interviews with young people aged 17 to 25.  Among the reports’ key findings:

  • 15% of the total population of 911 young people had been trafficked for sex (21.4% of young women and 10% of young men).  An astounding 26.9% of LGBTQ youth reported experiences consistent with the U.S. federal definition of sex trafficking.
  • 32.1% of the youth interviewed had engaged in some way in the sex trade at some point: 40.5% of young females; 25.3% of young men. Fifty-six percent of the transgender youth reported being involved in the sex trade in some way.

The Loyola research further found that:

  • 68% of the youth who had engaged in the commercial sex trade had done so while homeless.
  • 91% of respondents reported being approached by strangers or acquaintances who offered lucrative work opportunities that turned out to be fraudulent work situations, scams, pandering, or sex trafficking.
  • The vast majority (81%) of labor trafficking cases reported were instances of forced drug dealing.

The Field Center’s focus on child welfare informed the development of a secondary survey administered to those who acknowledged experiencing sex trafficking. Questions looked at child welfare-related issues, such as previous abuse history, the number of foster homes in which a respondent was placed, as well as resilience factors.

Among the Field Center’s findings after interviewing close to 300 homeless youth in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., were sobering statistics:

  • 95% of youth who were sex trafficked reported a history of child maltreatment, with 49% reporting a history of childhood sexual abuse
  • 67% of homeless females reported being offered money for sex
  • 39% of those who were sex trafficked identified as LGTBQ youth, with transgender youth having the highest incidence
  • Youth who reported having the presence of a supportive adult in their lives and completing high school were less likely to be sex trafficked.

“This groundbreaking academically rigorous study specifically examines the child welfare-to-child trafficking pipeline,” Debra Schilling Wolfe, the executive director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “The goal is to identify the factors that can predict who is most at risk for sex trafficking. This work can shape national policy and create effective interventions, thereby stemming the pipeline to predators and ultimately reducing the number of victims.”

“We found that youth were seeking what we all seek – shelter, work, security – and that trafficker preyed on those very needs,” said Dr. Laura T. Murphy of the Modern Slavery Research Project said. “When we asked youth what they needed to avoid or escape these situations of forced labor and radical exploitation, they often pointed to the very resources that homeless shelters can and do provide them. What we need is more resources to support those programs and additional training that help service providers identify and assist those who are most at risk.”

Researchers interviewed homeless youth at Covenant House shelters in Anchorage, Atlanta, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C. Interviews were also conducted with young people at Tumbleweed, one•n•ten, and Native American Connections – all located in Phoenix.

For more information on these studies, go to