By Eileen Wright, trafficking case manager, Covenant House Alaska
In April 2017, Covenant House released a groundbreaking study that shed new light on the link between youth homelessness and human trafficking. It was the largest study ever of human trafficking among homeless young people, conducted in 10 cities nationwide, including Covenant House Alaska in Anchorage. The results were staggering. Of the 10 cities studied, Anchorage had the highest reported prevalence of trafficking. 28 percent of the youth surveyed at Covenant House Alaska were found to be survivors of human trafficking – more than a quarter of youth at the shelter, compared to 19 percent in the survey nationally. Eileen Wright, trafficking case manager at Covenant House Alaska, relates her experiences about the work done at the youth shelter for survivors of sex trafficking.
Not too long ago, a teenage girl arrived at our shelter at Covenant House from a small village in rural Alaska. Like most our youth, she had experienced some kind of trauma and was looking for a safe place to spend the night off the streets. Little by little, we began to unravel her story. The girl had been locked inside a boarded-up room and held against her will, armed men outside barring her escape. Her boyfriend – the trafficker – had brought customers into the room to sexually assault her as he profited from her abuse. She had come to Anchorage from the village to escape a dangerous home life. She now found herself trapped in the nightmare of sex trafficking, with no place to go.
Sex trafficking is an insidious crime, where predators target the most vulnerable of society. And in Alaska, we have one of the most vulnerable populations in the entire country: our children. Alaska sadly has the highest statistics of child molestation and abuse in the nation, and the highest rates of sexual assault and child neglect. These children are particularly at risk to sexual exploitation and chronic homelessness later on – they’ve already been “normalized” to a life of abuse and so are easy prey. There are criminals out there, looking to make a profit. Homeless youth are the targets.
Traffickers groom young people through manipulation, through coercion and lies. It usually starts out with a relationship with a youth who is already vulnerable, who has no sense of value or self-worth. The trafficker lies to them, telling them they are loved, they are appreciated and will be cared for. For many at-risk youth, this is the first time anybody has lavished them with such praise and affection. A young girl soon cannot imagine their life without this person; in their minds, they are the only ones who have ever truly cared for them.
Then comes the abuse. Their boyfriends, the pimps, tell them, “If you really love me, then you will do this favor for me.” Resistance meets with beatings and threats. Girls will often be tied down and injected with meth or heroin, igniting painful addictions. And thus the cycle of trafficking begins.
When we found out the results of the study – that 28 percent of our youth at Covenant House Alaska were survivors of human trafficking – none of us here were surprised. If anything, we felt that it was underreported. We were also not surprised to learn that Alaska experiences the most heinous cases of sex trafficking in the nation. The researcher, Dr. Laura Murphy of Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project, told us that from among all the Covenant House sites across the country, ours had the most brutal cases of sex trafficking – worse than the big, crime-filled cities of Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and even New York. And it’s true. When youth finally do open up to us, their stories are horrific. It is absolutely soul-crushing.
I love these young people. All of us here at Covenant House truly do. And I believe that the most important thing we can do for youth who are being trafficked – for all our youth who experience abuse and homelessness – is to show them unconditional love and respect. We build trusting relationships with them and always accept them for who they are. We make it so that Covenant House is a safe place that they can always come back to. The more times they come back here when they’re in trouble, the more likely they are to open up to us. And we become that relationship of unconditional love that they thought they had, which unlocks the ability for them to share the abuse they’ve suffered. Burdens are easier to carry when someone else is supporting you.
We all must do something to end this epidemic of sex trafficking in Alaska. It can start with our most precious resource: our children. Our mission at Covenant House is to “serve the suffering children of the street and to protect and safeguard all children.” If more Alaskans took that mission to heart, then perhaps we could begin to tackle the underlying trauma that brings youth to the streets – and ultimately to sex trafficking – in the first place.
Covenant House Alaska is the state’s largest shelter serving youth ages 13 – 21 experiencing homelessness, abuse and trafficking. It provides safe shelter and warm meals, as well as medical, counseling, education and employment services. Since 1988, CHA has served over 25,000 at-risk youth in Alaska. To read the Covenant House study on human trafficking, go to https://covenanthousestudy.org/landing/trafficking/. For more information on how you can join Anchorage’s movement to end youth homelessness, please contact Covenant House Alaska’s volunteer specialist at 907.339.4261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.