Law Enforcement

Youth Homelessness and Human Trafficking

On Monday, April 28, One Roof’s Community Outreach Coordinator, Stacy Oliver, and AmeriCorps Member, Josh Helms, attended The Civil Rights Act at 50: Education & Empowerment, A Conference on Civil Rights and Law Enforcement, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. We listened to several excellent and informative presentations addressing the relationship between civil rights and law enforcement. During these sessions, we thought about the ways that these issues often impact someone’s housing status and ability to leave homelessness. We wanted to share some of what we learned at the conference about human trafficking as it relates to youth homelessness.

One presenter, Tanya Hallford, Former Assistant District Attorney in Baldwin County and Founder of Stop Sex Exploitation, opened a discussion about the importance of changing the way we think about girls and women who have been trafficked. Ms. Hallford noted that when a girl has experienced statutory rape, she’s considered a victim, but when a girl or woman is prostituted, community members might consider her a criminal rather than a victim or survivor. As Ms. Hallford said, the perception that girls and women want to be prostituted is not a reality. Girls and women who’ve been trafficked are vulnerable folks who’ve been exploited.

Human trafficking happens when people are struggling to meet their basic needs. When a human being is sold and trafficked, they are told that this way of life is mandatory. Someone who has no idea where they are, who they can trust, or how to care for themselves may feel that they can’t refuse what’s asked of them.  The consequences of saying “no” are often homelessness, violence, or even death. According to Ms. Hallford’s presentation, survivors of human trafficking are often shamed, blamed, or assessed as criminals in our own society, so some survivors might not come forward for help because they have come to see themselves as criminal.

During the presentation, we learned that people leaving a trafficking situation are truly vulnerable.  Like many people trying to rebuild their lives during or after a housing crisis, there are many obstacles for a survivor of human trafficking. For youth who have been trafficked, the formative years that they should have been learning life skills or growing their work or housing history have been taken away. Without these experiences and an adequate support network, youth have formidable barriers to navigating a safer, more self-reliant, and stable life and home outside of trafficking.  Most employers will judge potential employees who have no previous job experience, and most landlords who find out about a potential tenant’s background will have similar stigmas.

One Roof is particularly concerned with issues related to youth homelessness and human trafficking in Birmingham.  We learned that many adult women who are prostitutes were prostituted by someone they knew and trusted at a young age. According to FBI Special Agent Brian Ozden’s presentation on human trafficking and the Innocence Lost National Initiative, the majority of people trafficked for sex in the US are girls between the ages of 15 and 17. Ozden and other presenters discussed how Atlanta, Georgia is a major hub for human trafficking — not just in the United States, but internationally. Because of Birmingham’s proximity to Atlanta, and its comparable number of major interstate connections and location on the I-20 corridor, our community is a major (and growing) hub for human trafficking.

As a community, we must be sensitive to the needs, fears, and circumstances of survivors of human trafficking. We must also understand that human trafficking is directly linked to poverty and homelessness. One Roof believes that everyone experiencing homelessness or poverty deserves to be seen as an individual who is not to blame for their condition or circumstances — including people who have been trafficked. Ending homelessness and addressing this growing issue in Birmingham includes being aware of human trafficking and its consequences.

For more information on human trafficking and how individuals and agencies can help, check out these resources from the US Department of Health and Human Services, including an educational video.


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