As Human Trafficking Awareness Month draws to a close, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) took a significant step forward Tuesday in the fight against human trafficking by introducing the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (RHYTPA).
RHYTPA would reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which expired in 2013. The bill would provide critical support to thousands of unaccompanied homeless youth through services such as street outreach, temporary housing, crisis intervention, and transitional living programs, ensuring that providers have adequate resources and that protections against discrimination for LGBT youth exist.
The links between trafficking and homelessness are clear. Many homeless youth have limited means to meet basic needs such as food or shelter, and they may have few supportive adults in their lives to whom they can turn for help. As a result, they are at heightened risk for mistreatment. A survey by a service provider in New York City found that approximately one in four young homeless clients had been victimized by trafficking, including compelled sex trafficking and forced labor, or had engaged in survival sex.
LGBT young people are particularly vulnerable. Although approximately 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, discrimination and violence can prevent them from accessing safe shelter. LGBT young people are also disproportionately represented within the foster care system, where youth are frequently targeted by traffickers. LGBT youth who are undocumented face unique challenges, as they may fear or be threatened with deportation if they seek help — despite the fact that forms of immigration relief could be available to them.
Data indicate that homeless LGB youth are significantly more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience sexual victimization, including sexual assault. One survey of homeless youth in Hollywood found that young men who had sex with men were more likely than other young men to have been forced into sex work by a parent or other adult. In other instances, LGBT youth engage in survival sex in order to generate income, secure a place to stay, or meet costs for health needs such as gender affirmation surgeries, or as an alternative to the abuse or instability that many have experienced within child welfare systems or in unaccepting families.
Because activities related to both homelessness and sex work are criminalized, LGBT young people are disproportionately likely to be caught up in the juvenile or criminal justice systems. Once they leave, they often have few opportunities for stable housing or employment.
Programs that serve runaway and homeless youth are uniquely poised to help interrupt these cycles of trafficking, poverty, criminalization, and housing instability. In order to work with young people to ensure they have the building blocks they need to succeed on whatever path they choose to follow, such as housing, health care, counseling, referrals to legal assistance, and educational and career opportunities, providers must have adequate resources available.
Each homeless LGBT young person has a unique journey and unique set of experiences. All of them, however, deserve access to the tools required to stabilize their lives and plan for their futures. RHYTPA has bipartisan support and was voted out of committee during the last session of Congress with a strong 15-3 vote. It is time for Congress to take action to support runaway, homeless, and trafficked young people.
Hannah Hussey is a Research Associate with LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress.