Each year, runaway and homeless youth in the United States are at high risk for exposure to violence through sexual assault and trafficking. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that annually about 39,000 runaway or homeless youth not yet 18 experience exposure to commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), typically within the first few days of leaving home. CSE, considered the most common form of human trafficking within the United States, is “defined as sexual abuse by an adult for profit.” Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard, has noted that this particular population of youth is typically targeted by traffickers because they are already vulnerable, usually having no money or food to sustain themselves.
Many of the homeless or runaway children are attempting to escape from violent or abusive family situations. Particularly, youth are leaving abusive and violent environments where they have been physically or sexually abused by a close friend or family member. They are usually hoping to reach a place where they can be safe. Unfortunately, they often encounter an even more terrifying reality where they are exposed to an even wider range of violence and abuse, including poverty, exploitation and disease resulting in traumatic experiences. The Conspiracy of Hope describes this problem in its blog where it shares the story of Jill, her escape from sexual abuse at home and her subsequent fall into homelessness and sexual trafficking.
A 2010 special America’s Trafficked Youth also reveals a glimpse at the troubling connection between runaway youth and CSE.
Besides the negative physical consequences these youth encounter, their long-term mental health can also be impacted. Some of these consequences may include increased risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and poor self-esteem. Homeless and trafficked youth can also be hard to identify and, because of their experiences, some survivors may not feel comfortable accessing or trusting potential resources for help.
In spite of these difficulties there are a number of resources and agencies working with homeless and runaway youth providing support and helping to prevent and mitigate the consequences of trafficking on this population. Please check out some of the links below for more information:
Trauma-Informed Care for Children Exposed to Violence
Tips for Domestic Violence and Homeless Shelters
Homeless Shelters, Permanent/ Supportive Housing, and Transitional Housing
National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth
A great resource for runaway and homeless youth programs
National Runaway Switchboard
A national crisis line for runaways. Provides services like free greyhound bus tickets home for youth and great information for teens, parents, and educators