Among its many findings, the study highlights the role of homelessness in forcing young people into “survival sex,” or the trading of sex acts—such as prostitution or stripping—for basic needs such as food or shelter.
“Over and over again we heard, ‘If I had a place to stay, this would have never happened to me,’” said Jayne Bigelsen, director of anti-human trafficking initiatives at Covenant House, the social service agency in Manhattan where the study was conducted.
Bigelsen was one of two principal investigators on the study, along with Stefanie Vuotto, a doctoral candidate in the Applied Developmental Psychology program at Fordham. Out of 174 homeless youth between 18 and 23 years old who were surveyed, nearly one-quarter—or 23 percent—had been trafficked or had engaged in survival sex.
Of those who had performed paid sex acts, 48 percent did so because they lacked a safe place to stay.
“We want people to understand the connection between trafficking and runaway and homeless youth,” said Bigelsen, pointing to the need for more government support for shelters. “We are turning away several hundred [young people]a month and all the other youth shelters in the city are as well, and yet funding keeps getting cut. If you want to stop trafficking, we need to have more services.”
The study was an attempt to measure a problem that is notoriously hard to track, in part because victims are reluctant to discuss it.
Vuotto took the lead in developing and validating the study’s questionnaire, which is couched in explanatory, sensitive, nonjudgmental language designed to elicit truthful answers about a touchy topic and help bring the human trafficking problem out of the shadows.
“There are no reliable statistics in terms of the prevalence of human trafficking, or what it looks like in New York City, probably because it’s very covert in its nature,” Vuotto said.
The questionnaire contains detailed instructions about what to listen for and how to follow up on answers that may indicate trafficking. While other groups have methods for screening trafficking victims, Vuotto’s is the first to be this deeply researched and to be scientifically validated for use in the homeless youth population, said Vuotto’s practicum instructor at Fordham, Ann Higgins-D’Alessandro, Ph.D.
“Developing a reliable instrument that can identify victims so they may be helped is critically important, because human trafficking is such a huge and mostly hidden problem,” she said. Bigelsen, meanwhile, hopes the study will show people that “trafficking does happen here in the U.S.” She also had advice for those who would do something about trafficking: provide help and support to young people in need so they don’t come under the sway of those who would coerce and exploit them.
“If you’re mentoring a homeless kid or an at-risk youth or doing anything like that, you’re helping prevent trafficking,” she said.