Preventing human trafficking of homeless youth by building connections

Covenant House in downtown Anchorage. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Young people who are homeless in Alaska are at high risk for human trafficking, but there are ways to prevent the problem.

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Josh Louwerse is the youth engagement coordinator at Covenant House Alaska, Anchorage’s only homeless center for youth. He’s very aware and cautious of assumptions people make about where people are most at risk.

“I think far too often things get labeled…’Oh well, that just happens there,’ or ‘This happens there.’ But this is an issue that’s happening in the whole city and the state. Essentially what we see from a neighborhood or a street is the low hanging fruit,” people who it’s more obvious to find and identity, Louwerse said. “But there’s so much more that’s going on that’s much more sophisticated, that’s going on out of sight.”

Covenant House Alaska participated in Loyola University’s ten-city study on labor and sex trafficking among homeless youth. More than a quarter of the 65 young people who were interviewed in Anchorage were victims of trafficking. Louwerse said numbers are likely higher since they only spoke with people who were seeking services.

Human trafficking is when someone is exploited through force, fraud or coercion. It includes forcing a person to have sex in exchange for money or housing or promising a high wage for a job then never paying up. A person can be trapped into unpaid servitude. In Anchorage, some victims were forced to sell drugs or do other criminal activity.

Louwerse drove around the city, past playgrounds, neighborhoods, gas stations, stores, cheap motels – all places that vulnerable young people might hang out. He explained they’re the same places that traffickers look.

“The recruiters who are trying to draw people into this lifestyle are looking for the easiest targets,” Louwerse said. “And our easiest targets are those who are homeless because they don’t have a place to go, they don’t have folks caring for them. If they disappear, few people will notice.”

77 percent of the young people in Anchorage who were trafficked for sex were homeless at the time. Louwerse said that often youth end up homeless because there are gaps in the system – they can’t find treatment for mental health problems or addictions. They don’t have support networks or housing options.

“At the end of the day, it’s a lack of community,” Louwerse said. “So who is there for them if we’re not? Traffickers.”

Debra Schilling Wolfe with the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research was part of the national study on youth and human trafficking. The research shows that many people who were survivors of trafficking had aged out of foster care.

“Often when they turn the magic age of 18 or 21 if they are in extended care, they’re kind of dropped off the grid as it were, and have to support themselves without having the skills or resources to do so,” Wolfe said.

The study shows many trafficking victims had experienced sexual abuse or other trauma, which leads to increased vulnerability.

“One young woman had said, ‘I was sexually abused as a child, and I kind of learned from that that people could touch my body if they wanted to. I didn’t feel that I had control or ownership,'” Wolfe said, referencing an interview done on the East Coast.

Extensive social science research shows that one way to make young people less vulnerable to exploitation is to help them feel connected. Louwerse with Covenant House said youth need caring adults in their lives who support them and know them well enough to notice changes in behavior.

“Get involved with youth because if they’re supported and they have the people that they need in their lives, then they will not end up vulnerable to this issue,” Louwerse stated. “You know, I think if we want to be spectators and drive around our city and try to identify it, I think that’s very difficult. It really takes getting invested in people’s lives to understand and then discover that they are being exploited by something like this.”

Nationwide about 20 percent of homeless youth experienced trafficking.

Covenant House is participating in the Barefoot Mile, an event to raise awareness about human trafficking in the state. It takes place Saturday, May 20 in Anchorage’s Town Square Park from 1 to 4 pm.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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