On Jan. 29, Covenant House Toronto executive director Bruce Rivers launched the city's first "specialized longer-term transitional housing program" for female victims of sex trade and trafficking. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Covenant House partners with city to aid sex-trade workers

  • January 29, 2015

TORONTO - Covenant House is stepping up to give young women and girls caught in the grip of the sex trade a way out.

On Jan. 29, Covenant House Toronto executive director Bruce Rivers launched the city's first “specialized longer-term transitional housing program that will be designed specifically for female victims of sex trade, sex trafficking.” The housing will be in an undisclosed location in the city.

In addition to providing a safe place to sleep, the new transitional housing program will connect victims with lawyers (working pro bono) and specialized medical professionals at St. Michael’s Hospital while providing ongoing mentoring during their stay, which can last up to two years.

A staple in battling youth homelessness in Toronto for more than 30 years, Covenant House has assisted more than 90,000 youth aged 16 to 24 over the years. From this experience, Covenant House has seen the prevalence of human trafficking in the city, said Rivers.

“This is largely a domestic issue and we are now seeing dozens of sex-trafficked victims annually, most of whom are local girls,” he said, adding that Covenant House currently is aiding more than 30 clients from the sex trade. “We also estimate that as many as 1,000 of our youth are involved in some form of the sex trade annually, mostly trading sex for survival. We know that homeless youth are targeted by predators and we also know that unsuspecting young girls in schools, malls and online are lured into this kind of sex slavery.

“Their desperation makes them highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation for profit.”

And the problem is rising, said Toronto Deputy Chief of Police Mark Saunders.

“Human trafficking in the City of Toronto is on the rise,” said Saunders. “It is, the numbers are showing us that.”

He said that last year alone Toronto saw 59 arrests, 365 charges laid and one conviction, the city's first, for human trafficking. In addition, 33 victims were rescued.

The problem has led a multilevel partnership including the police, the City of Toronto and Toronto Community Housing to provide a “safe, suitable and stable platform for our young women to be re-empowered, to be healed and to be contributors once again,” said Saunders.

Toronto Community Housing stepped up to provide a location for the housing program for 15 years. Covenant House “will pay a very nominal fee for rent during that time,” said Rivers, while the City of Toronto funded the renovations.

Toronto Mayor John Tory was also on hand for the announcement.

“I think when we invest in people like this ... and give them a chance at a normal life, to not be people who are dependent on government programs ... then that I think is exactly the kind of investment for us to make,” said Tory.

Rivers said Covenant House will do as it always has and rely on its benefactors to make this an entire community effort. And involving as many different people, groups and organization as possible will be key to curbing this growing, and at times overlooked, domestic problem.

“When you talk about human trafficking, sex trafficking, the mind (goes) international right away,” said Rivers. “We did a survey through Covenant House and found that most Ontarians are actually unaware of the extent of the problem. But the fact is it is our child, it is our youth and the vast majority of victims are our kids.”

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