Content warning: This article includes details about sexual violence, kidnapping, self-harm, child abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse.
A transgender teenager feels unsafe at home because her family won’t accept her transitioning. There’s no group home for her to move into if she runs away. With no other options, she turns to the streets.
This type of situation is a reality for some homeless LGBTQ minors, including those in the Philadelphia and nearby New Jersey areas. Such circumstances lead to a high risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking, according to the Polaris Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to combatting and researching human trafficking.
“These youth look to be accepted somewhere else, and that oftentimes starts in the streets. Unfortunately, predators prey on that,” said Dawne Lomangino-DiMaurio, director of human trafficking services at Dream Catchers, a services program at The Women’s Center in Atlantic County, N.J.
State-specific statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline found that 117 cases of human trafficking were reported to the hotline in Pennsylvania in the first half of 2017. Twenty-eight of these cases involved minors. In nearby New Jersey, 205 calls were made in the same period, and 51 involved minors.
Among the 50 states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are ranked ninth and 13th, respectively, for having the most calls to the hotline.
A victim of human trafficking can be any age, race, sexual orientation or gender identity, but the risk that homeless LGBTQ youth face is unique because they are more susceptible to discrimination, economic instability, violence, abuse and victimization, said Elaine McCartin, a communications associate at the Polaris Project. Having less support and fewer resources to help them, LGBTQ youth who leave home or get forced out often end up in the streets.
“That lack of support — that’s what traffickers identify and then leverage to their benefit,” McCartin said. “They recognize that an individual is in dire need of some family, or support, or romantic love. They use that to exploit an individual, and then hold their basic survival needs hostage.”
The Polaris Project estimates that although an estimated 7 percent of youth in the general U.S. population identify as LGBTQ, about 40 percent of homeless youth identify as members of the LGBTQ community. They are three to seven times more likely to engage in survival sex to meet their basic needs and seven times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence.
An ‘emerging field of knowledge’
Despite the prevalence of LGBTQ identification among homeless youth, service providers are struggling to meet the needs of that population. Most urban areas maintain strong human trafficking programs, McCartin said, but rural and suburban areas can be unprepared to address the needs of LGBTQ clients.
“Sometimes, people are outright discriminating,” she said. “And there are other times when someone’s heart is in the right place but they’re just not well-equipped — it can be something like not using preferred pronouns or what type of deodorant is available or bathroom preference.”
Situations as simple as those can “lead to the same feelings of victimization that lead someone to leave home in the first place,” McCartin said.
The understanding of the intersectionality between LGBTQ homeless and runaway youth is an “emerging field of knowledge,” said Kimberly Hogan, a research project director at the Arizona State University School of Social Work’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. Most studies on the issue have been published in the past five years.
“What we do know,” Hogan said, “is that LGBTQ youth account for a disproportionate rate of the runaway and homeless youth population and that they experience disproportionately high rates of victimization.”
Research from Arizona State that surveyed homeless minors in Arizona found that when comparing the life experiences of LGBTQ youth who were sex trafficked with those who were not, the sex-trafficked LGBTQ youth were significantly more likely to report a history of drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, post-traumatic stress, physical or emotional abuse by a parent or guardian, sexual abuse, harassment by peers and dating violence, Hogan said.
Lomangino-DiMaurio noted that despite an overall lack of resources for LGBTQ trafficking victims on a national level, New Jersey is making progress to be more inclusive. Dream Catchers, an organization based in Linwood, N.J., will find out in October whether they will be given a grant to launch an LGBTQ-specific services program, she said.
“This population is extremely vulnerable and has much less resources to get out” of their situations, Lomangino-DiMaurio said. “Our program is open to anyone, any age and any identity. Not every service provider does that, but we developed ours to be diverse and have staff for different populations and languages.”
Lomangino-DiMaurio said homeless LGBTQ youth who have been trafficked are hesitant to trust some service providers because they fear being judged for their sexual orientations and gender identities. Churches and religious organizations often pick up where social work leaves off in providing services to human trafficking victims, and fear of discrimination or past negative experiences with religion can make LGBTQ homeless youth wary of those groups.
“It reflects our society,” Lomangino-DiMaurio said.
There is also an added layer of stigma for LGBTQ victims, said Omar Martinez, a public health professor at Temple University.
“First, there’s the stigma of being gay. For victims to speak out, there are several factors. If you’re LGBTQ, but you’re also undocumented, you’re scared of reporting to police,” Martinez said. “Some [youth] haven’t even come out to their families. … There’s stigma, fear and vulnerability. That creates a lot of barriers to accessing this population.”
Shining a light on trafficking through journalism
Experts on human trafficking and youth homelessness said media coverage can play an important role in raising awareness about the issue of human trafficking.
Martinez said the issues that prevent individuals in the LGBTQ homeless population from seeking help are also obstacles to news coverage.
“I see the importance of media taking an active role, but there are barriers that prevent coverage from happening because it’s underground and takes so many marginalized people as hostages,” Martinez said. Even finding victims of trafficking can be difficult, he said. However, a journalist can use a story to connect his or her audience to resources. That can be as simple as putting the information for a hotline and local human trafficking service providers at the end of a story.
“It’s all about community care and having a safety net,” Martinez said.
Journalists covering this crime can reach a large audience through powerful storytelling. But a Google News search of “human trafficking” will reveal that incidents of trafficking appear primarily as breaking news, blending in among other crime stories in local news publications. There is little news coverage of the broader issue. The word cloud above shows the 40 most used words in 20 recent news articles about human trafficking that involved LGBTQ individuals from across the United States. The top 40 words were found by entering the text of all 20 articles into an algorithm.
One of the most important responsibilities of a journalist covering human trafficking, according to McCartin, is to help dismantle misconceptions about the issue by focusing more in-depth attention on the stories of victims and survivors in marginalized populations and by focusing on the resilience that homeless youth show.
A major obstacle facing service providers is a popular conception of human trafficking as “something that happens to white female minors who can get scooped up in the suburbs,” McCartin said. “One role journalism can really play is to elevate the stories of vulnerable populations who are overlooked — LGBT homeless youth, youth of color, transgender youth. By helping to bring those stories to light, you’re showing it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s a result of a lot of different factors.”
If you see a situation that may look like human trafficking or you think you might be in one, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is available 24 hours, 7 days a week, in 200 languages, and will connect you to a trained anti-trafficking advocate. You can also text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For additional resources, visit http://humantraffickinghotline.org.
About the Author
Gianluca D’Elia, a senior at Rider University, is studying journalism and political science. Learn more about him here.