In recent years, the plight of human trafficking victims has received a great deal of attention among legislators, social service providers and the popular press. However, as society begins to learn more about the growing problem of domestic trafficking, some questions remain, including even the most basic question: How many people are currently being victimized by trafficking right here in the U.S.?

Answering this question is not an easy task, because victims are often reluctant to come forward and seek help. This reluctance is partly because perpetrators frequently convince their victims that if they attempt to seek help, no one will believe them; instead they will be thought of as criminals or prostitutes. Additionally, a lack of any central system to identify and count victims of trafficking leaves policy makers with inaccurate data making it difficult to budget and promote appropriate public policy.

Here’s what we do know:

  • Sadly we see far too many trafficking victims at Covenant House-which is not surprising because traffickers seek out the most vulnerable among us. Homeless and runaway youth are the preferred targets of traffickers.
  • A 2013 Covenant House /Fordham University study found that lack of shelter and not having a caring adult in their lives were the main factors that led our youth into the hands of traffickers; people who offered false promises of friendship, a safe place to stay, and love, only to wait until they gained the youth’s trust before enslaving them in sexual servitude.
  • Funding services and beds for homeless youth and volunteering or mentoring at- risk youth puts you on the front line of trafficking prevention.
  • In that same study we found that close to 25% of surveyed Covenant House youth either were victims of trafficking or at one point in their life felt so desperate that they needed to trade sex for something of value, including food or a place to sleep.
  • Traffickers use the lack of youth homeless shelter beds as a way to lure young people in. They tell them that the shelters are full and ask “where are you going to go, why don’t you come with me.”
  • If we want to fight trafficking we cannot be cutting services for homeless youth. Yet NYS State only puts forward under 3 million dollars in funding for runaway and homeless youth programs for the entire state each year.
  • A study conducted by LifeWay Network and Hofstra University found that between 2000 and 2010, service providers in New York City had interacted with at least 11,268 trafficking survivors. Yet there are less than 50 shelter beds dedicated to trafficking survivors in New York City.
  • Homeless youth often have to make the desperate choice between sleeping on the street and being hungry and cold and going with a pimp who is offering food and a place to stay.
  • Pimps look for vulnerable youth; including homeless youth, kids in foster care and young people who have been previously sexually abused. Pimps believe that it’s easier if a victim has experienced prior sexual abuse, because they are already “broken in and primed for rape and abuse.”
  • According to federal law, all children engaging in prostitution are trafficking victims. (they are too young to consent!). Therefore there is no such thing as a “child prostitute” but far too many sexually exploited children.
  • If a pimp forces a person to engage in sex for money against their will at any time, whether through threats, coercion or physical violence, they are a trafficking victim, regardless of whether they initially consented. (often due to love of the pimp or desperation).
  • Trafficking victims can be found in all sorts of places; brothels, strip clubs, nail salons, massage parlors, restaurants, farms and in people’s homes as domestic servants.
  • Pimps have been known to tattoo their victims, sometimes with dollar signs or the pimps’ name, so people know that “their girls” belong to them.
  • Some pimps/traffickers pretend to be a boyfriend, often waiting until a girl or young women is in love with them and completely dependent on them before forcing them into prostitution. They then alternate between horrific violence and acts of love, sometimes offering the only love and affection a young person has ever experienced in his or her life.
  • Most trafficking victims are not in chains. Pimps can use psychological and emotional coercion to control their victims. Many victims are traumatically bonded to their pimps and despite enduring horrific violence, believe they are loved by them.
  • Boys are trafficked too. Just like girls, the exact number of trafficked boys is unknown, and boys are even less likely to ask for help and open up and disclose their trafficking experiences.
  • LGBTQ youth are at especially high risk for trafficking victimization. Transgender youth often feel like that commercial sex is their only option, because employers often discriminate against them.
  • Traffickers deny their victims an education or an ability to gain real employment skills. This makes victims feel like they have no way out, as sex work is now their only resume.
  • A study by Hofstra University and the LifeWay Network found that trafficking survivors are in desperate need of shelter and permanent housing. Anti-trafficking advocates spend far too much time calling each other begging for shelter space for their clients
  • It must be understood that when someone purchases sex there is a strong chance that even though the victim might be hiding behind provocative clothing or a fake smile, in reality they may be underage and/or forced to be there against their will. It cannot be clearer: If you do not want to participate in the rape of a child or a trafficking victim, then don’t buy sex.
The face of child trafficking is often not what you think.