A Vicious, Invisible Cycle

Homelessness and human trafficking often go hand-in-hand with few options for escape
The-Homefront-Human-Trafficking-Fall-2019
Posters like this can be found in restrooms and on public bulletin boards throughout the city. The homeless are often preyed upon by human traffickers.

© 2019 NowKalamazoo/Chris Killian

Issa Smith says she once lived out of motels, all arranged by her trafficker. Once she was locked in a storage unit, she says, and once escaped by jumping out of a moving truck.

“So many women are desperate to get away from one person [traffickers] that they flee, but because they are also desperate for a place to stay, they end up with another one,” Smith told The Homefront. “It’s a vicious cycle. There is a lot of shame in this lifestyle. You are not proud of what your life is. But you have to find ways to survive.”

She’s been preyed upon while homeless in Kalamazoo, though the 39-year-old mother of two says she’s no longer at risk, now she’s battling the low availability of housing options that are both affordable and livable.

The effort to end homelessness is a crucial component of the fight to end human trafficking. Leaving one makes it more difficult to leave the other.

While many of the challenges that Kalamazoo faces with homelessness can be very visible, human trafficking — a vicious force that often preys on vulnerable individuals out on the street — is often hidden from view.

Its victims may have suffered domestic violence or engaged in sex work and are generally economically disadvantaged. They might be migrant farmworkers, immigrants, or young people whose most recent stable home life has been bouncing around the foster care system.

They’re all people whose circumstances lead them to be especially at risk to being preyed upon by human traffickers.

Once taken into human trafficking, their options for escape become even less viable if they don’t have a home to go to.

“Sadly, it’s very easy to slip into this if you are already vulnerable,” says Jessica Glynn, senior director of law and policy at YWCA Kalamazoo. “And the traffickers know that.”

Homeless people between 17 and 25 years old are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers, according to two recent studies coordinated by Covenant House International, a homeless youth support organization.

Interviews of 641 homeless or runaway youth between 2014 and 2016 at 10 different locations in the U.S. and Canada by Loyola University New Orleans’s Modern Slavery Research Project, found that 91% were approached at least once by someone offering a job in the sex trade or another illegal job.

Nearly 20% reported as being victims of human trafficking, including 14% who were trafficked specifically for sex. The University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research interviews of 270 homeless youth in Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. documented similar rates in its 2018 report.

“Human trafficking can happen to anyone but some people are more vulnerable than others,” the National Human Trafficking Hotline says on its website. “Significant risk factors include recent migration or relocation, substance use, mental health concerns, involvement with the children welfare system and being a runaway or homeless youth.

Often, traffickers identify and leverage their victims’ vulnerabilities in order to create dependency.”

A National Problem Here

Sometimes, traffickers are so brazen they will wait outside shelters for women to be asked to leave due to fighting or other conduct, then swoop in to offer them shelter — at a cost. Within days, the woman finds herself being trafficked.

A quid pro quo situation often quickly develops between the human trafficker and their victim or victims, Glynn says. There are many scenarios. Often a human trafficker may offer shelter — and drugs, especially if the victim is already an addict — in exchange for sex. Taken a step further, a victim is forced or coerced into prostitution or another form of forced labor, with the trafficker almost always pocketing the proceeds.

Those who work low-wage jobs, live paycheck-to-paycheck, and struggle to pay their rent could be lured into being trafficked under the false pretext of being helped. “When there is a lack of affordable housing, the vulnerability increases for someone just getting by,” Glynn says. “It makes the job of traffickers so much easier.”

Kalamazoo’s chronic lack of affordable housing only makes this scenario more real.

“It’s not just that these woman are vulnerable, it’s that they are homeless in one form or another,” says Smith. “It’s not like you’re going to your own home. You are living in a hotel, or heading to a motel or someone’s house for the night just so you have a place to stay. But it’s never free. The cost is high, and when you need another place to go, you find one, and the cycle of abuse continues.”

First and foremost, Smith says, many of the victims are homeless — it’s something she’s experienced, and still fears it while on the continuous brink for lack of affordable and livable housing in the area.

“I need a home,” she says. “For the first time in my life I just want to walk though the front door of my house and say, ‘I feel proud.’”

Smith fought her way out of that cycle. For five years, she and her two boys, now 11 and 13, had a home in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood that was inexpensive enough to live in but in such disrepair that parts of the ceiling collapsed and sparks shot out of power outlets, and a violent boyfriend, who in 2016 was sent to state prison for domestic violence.

Over the summer of 2019, Smith says she was able to find permanent housing, with the help of a $300 monthly HUD voucher, the remaining $670 in rent being paid with a portion of her Social Security Disability Income. Other assistance providers are covering the utilities at her Eastside neighborhood home.

Few Victims Speak Out

Due to the shame many trafficking victims feel, few speak out. It’s understandable, Smith says. There is a palpable sense of shame felt by many victims of human trafficking, who try to remain as invisible as they can — scared to stay in the hands of their trafficker, and frightened to leave and enter a life alone on the streets, becoming a prisoner of sorts to a painful paradox. But Smith chooses to speak out, because she has to. She is no longer afraid.

“If my story saves one life, I won,” she says.

Smith’s story, and others like it, could save many more lives. It adds another reason to increase the community’s affordable housing stock, add better-paying jobs to the economy, and find ways to help people escape cycles of poverty.

“Once we get the community’s attention, we can talk about how we can stop this from happening in the first place,” Glynn says. “We are all to blame a bit, because when we allow poverty to exist, we allow human trafficking to exist. They go hand-in-hand.”

Stories in this issue:

From The Publisher

In Search of a Strategy

The Struggle

Those Facing the Most Risk:

Tears of Relief

We Can Do It Too

Not Enough Support

About The Homefront

Encore Publications is proud to host the online content of The Homefront, published by NowKalamazoo, a new media company covering important issues in Kalamazoo County.

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