Women and girls experiencing homelessness face an array of problems beyond the lack of a safe and suitable home—including social disadvantages, reduced access to public and private services, and vulnerability to labor and sex trafficking. From the foreign woman escaping a life of abuse and discrimination hoping to find a haven in the land of opportunity, to the young runaway fleeing from a violent and abusive home life, those without a place to call home share a common bond of vulnerability to traffickers. In fact, traffickers hone in on these vulnerable individuals, often feigning affection or offering shelter to elicit commercial sex or services from their victims. Although human trafficking can happen to anyone, most of those victims are women and girls. In addition to homelessness, gender is a significant risk factor for human trafficking.
“I had to give him what he wanted if I wanted a place to stay,” a 14-year-old sex trafficking survivor explains.
“In just a few days he ran through all the money I brought with me,” laments a woman tricked into coming to the United States for a job. After paying for “housing and other incidentals,” women are quickly divested of their cash as a strategy to put them at the mercy of their traffickers. Women have paid hundreds of dollars just to stay in a room where they must share a bed. With nowhere else to go and fear of deportation, many put up with traffickers because they don’t know how to access community resources for help.
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel an individual to participate in commercial sex, forced labor, or services. It encompasses all the acts surrounding recruiting, abduction, transporting, transferring, harboring, selling, or receiving a person for the explicit purpose of subjecting that person to exploitation, involuntary servitude, slavery, or debt bondage. Nor does it exclude the ability of traffickers to earn money, goods, or anything of value from the labor or sex acts of trafficking victims.
“I had to give him what he wanted if I wanted a place to stay,” a 14-year-old sex trafficking survivor explains. Young runaways are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking situations. What often starts out as a perceived romantic relationship for the young victim rapidly turns into scenarios where young girls are expected to sleep with whoever their “boyfriend” expects. He gets all the cash too, and if she holds back any for herself, the consequences may be a severe beating.
North Carolina ranks tenth in the nation for human trafficking. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in the past ten years nearly 2,700 victims of human trafficking have been identified in the state, including Western North Carolina. While sex trafficking makes up a large percentage of trafficking cases here in our state, labor trafficking is also a huge problem. Worse yet, according to Polaris Project, the numbers of identified trafficking victims fall short of the actual levels of trafficking happening here. Human trafficking is a difficult crime to detect since many victims don’t self-identify as trafficking victims, some out of fear and shame.
“When I told them I was a victim of human trafficking, they turned me away,” says a woman into the receiver of the phone as she presses her palm against the glass separating her from the rest of the world. When survivors finally do come forward, it may be difficult to find adequate services. Faced with long waiting lists, unprepared service providers, and residential requirements for many shelters, many victims are shuttled between domestic violence shelters, mental health facilities, hotels, and homeless shelters, most of which don’t provide trauma-informed services. It’s tough to escape a crisis of homelessness for trafficking survivors as the odds of recovery are stacked against them.
In addition to a vulnerable homeless population, Western North Carolina, a prime location for tourism, is exceedingly well placed for human trafficking activities. The geographic location contributes to the high numbers of victims and survivors residing within its borders because of the proximity to Washington, D.C., Charlotte, and Atlanta, all of which are known hubs for human trafficking. I-40, which runs from west to east, and several interstates running north and south across the state, facilitate labor and sex trafficking. Finally, North Carolina has a large agricultural community that produces a high demand for manual laborers. Predators depend on features like these because it makes it easier to locate, seize, coerce, move, and/or sell vulnerable victims.
“How could I let this happen to myself?” It’s a question many human trafficking survivors ask. “I can’t believe I was so stupid to fall for that,” one woman repeatedly chastises herself with this rumination. No matter the age, education, or social status of the victim, many survivors battle with internalizing the blame for their situations. Many of those who escape worry over others who continue to be victimized.
But young girls and women can be resilient. With support that includes comprehensive case management, connections with housing, and therapy, many are recovering. Some choose to further their education; others express themselves through art. Some even go on to reach out to others.
“I have hope now, and I want other ladies who are trafficked to have hope too,” beams one woman, smiling widely as her hair falls across her face.
Bree Normandin is a lifelong native of western North Carolina and the Project FIGHT (Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking) Anti Human Trafficking Case Manager for the Salvation Army.