A recent study by Covenant House International shows an ever-increasing number of homeless youth are victims of human trafficking. Photo/Max Pixel

Homeless youth prime target for trafficking

  • June 16, 2017

Canada’s homeless youth population is younger and more diverse than their American counterparts, but they are just as vulnerable of becoming trafficking victims.

Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House Toronto, said that as more research and more data is collected, they better understand the factors that put homeless youth at risk of being forced into a life of slavery.

“Because we had noticed that there is a trend up of young women that are coming to our attention, we decided to take a step back and have a studied look at this,” said Rivers.

In an effort to better protect the vulnerable on the streets, Covenant House International recently released a study that reveals the extent of the problem.

“Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth” study was published April 17. Researchers from Loyola University New Orleans and the Field Centre for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research collectively interviewed more than 900 youth in Covenant House shelters across 13 cities in the United States and Canada.

Among the 13 cities that participated in the study, Toronto and Vancouver were included as the two Canadian locations for Covenant House. As a result, the study is heavily influenced by data gathered in American cities.

“It’s not necessarily a reflection of our Canadian experience,” said Rivers.

Rivers said that the study found many common trends that speak to both the Canadian and American situation.

The study found that 91 per cent of youth interviewed between the ages of 17 to 25 have been approached by strangers offering work that was too good to be true.

About 14 per cent were victims of sex trafficking, while eight per cent had been trafficked for other forced labour and three per cent were trafficked for both sex and labour. This means that one in five homeless youth have experienced some sort of human trafficking.

“It’s not unusual for young people when they hit the streets to be lured and to be targeted by predators and by pimps,” said Rivers. “And they’ll do whatever they can to engage with these young people and to get them engaged to the point where they’re providing sexual favours for people and generating income for that pimp.”

What is different about Toronto, Rivers said, is the characteristics of the city’s homeless youth. Covenant House Toronto is Canada’s largest youth shelter, serving as many as 250 young people a day.

The majority (53 per cent) of homeless youth that participated in the study identifies as African, African American or Black. Other major ethnic groups include White (19 per cent) and Latino (10 per cent).

“There would be a higher percentage of White youth and a lower percentage of Black youth (in Toronto),” said Rivers. “There would be more diversity in terms of the Asian population in Toronto and there would be more aboriginals, especially in other parts of Canada.”

Sr. Nancy Brown, director of pastoral care at Covenant House Vancouver, said that there is a large population of homeless aboriginal youth in British Columbia. Of the 85 young people she coordinated to participate in the study, 58 were youth from residential reserves.

“In many statistics that I’ve read about Canada, the average age is 14, but we in Vancouver only deal with 16- to 24-year-olds,” said Brown, who is a member of the Congregation of Sisters of Charity Halifax. “I would say the average age would be 16 or 17. It appears that they are coming to us already (having) been involved.”

Rivers said Covenant House Toronto is experiencing the same trend. He said the average age of trafficked victims cared for by their city agency is 17 years old, but staff have seen victims as young as 13.

The majority of youth interviewed for the American-based study were between the ages of 19 to 21. They accounted for more than 58 per cent of the data pool.

Even if the research does not necessarily represent the problem of trafficking in Canada, the data collected sets a precedent. Covenant House International called it the “largest-ever study of the incidence of trafficking among homeless youth.”

Rivers said the data is a useful resource for Covenant House to understand its role in addressing the issue of trafficking in North America.

The number of people trafficked in Canada is largely unknown because the trade is often hidden. Trafficking is no longer on the streets but in places like hotels, massage parlours or spas.

Information from community organizations like Covenant House and police investigations suggests those most likely to be trafficked are young Canadian women exploited for sex.

“One of the things, though, that is consistent is that most of these young people are our kids. It’s a domestic issue and this is not kids coming from other countries,” he said. “The vast majority of survivors, victims are young women and as well, most of them are girls, just like girls you and I would know from our own community.”

As Covenant House Toronto and Vancouver look to expand local services for what they call a “continuum of care” for vulnerable youth, the Toronto agency is also spearheading a national petition for a hotline to connect youth with local shelters and other services.

“It’s really important, I think, that there be a 1-800 number that’s well-known, that’s been promoted across the country, so that there’s one place to go to report but also to seek help,” said Rivers. “This hotline would in turn connect with local initiatives across the country.”

More than 23,000 signatures had been collected from across the country as of June 12. Rivers hopes to collect signatures until June 19 before he brings them to the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office.

More information about the petition and Canada’s Catholic youth agencies can be found at covenenthousetoronto.ca and covenanthousebc.org.

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