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Challenges of Finding Housing for Human Trafficking Victims

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By Christi Scott Bartman, MPA, JD, Ph.D., contributor to In Public Safety

While listening to a panel of human-trafficking survivors during the 2019 Human Trafficking Awareness Day at the Ohio Statehouse, it became evident that housing was one of the main impediments for survivors to successfully escape a life of being trafficked.

Initially, it seemed the questions that needed an answer were simple: How many beds in emergency and longer-term shelters are available for human trafficking victims? What is the number of victims in need of those beds, and what is the gap in availability?

Unfortunately, figuring out the answers to the housing challenges for trafficking victims turns out to be much more complicated! To simplify the discussion, this article will discuss shelter needs only for adult women who are sex-trafficked. There are different issues for juvenile females, men, boys, those with children, and LGBTQ individuals as separate shelter is required for each.

The Importance of Identifying Trafficking Victims

One of the biggest impediments to finding housing for trafficked women is making sure they are being identified as victims. Part of the challenge in properly identifying these women is that they enter the shelter system in so many different ways. For example, some victims might just walk into a homeless shelter or be referred through mental health services to recovery housing. But, if not properly screened, they will not be identified as a trafficking victim.

[Related: How to Identify Signs of Human Trafficking]

Many trafficked victims have addiction issues, so they might enter the system through detox, but their drug dependency may overshadow signs of being a trafficking victim. Victims may also enter a shelter through the criminal justice system, but officers might not pick up on the signs of trafficking, though law enforcement and courts are making great strides in identification. If the victim is in a position to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, she will be put in touch with local resources that provide trained trauma-informed responses for trafficking victims.

[Related: Helping Trafficking Victims Requires Officer Training, Legal Support]

Regardless of how women enter the housing system, providers at all levels must be trained to identify signs of trafficking and know what questions to ask. This is a critical step because trafficking victims have a myriad of issues and differing housing needs from other groups.

Unique Needs of Trafficking Victims

After interviewing a number of survivors and those who work closely with them, it became evident that there are not enough drop-in centers to meet the women where they are – on the streets. Many existing drop-in centers are only open several hours during the week and are closed or have limited services available when victims often need assistance the most. To help trafficking victims, more 24/7 drop-in centers are needed that offer services such as medical attention, clothing, food, and peer-counseling, regardless of the day or time.

Once they do request help, there are only a few shelters in Ohio that offer beds specifically for trafficked victims. The majority of victims go into housing that serves a broader population. The issue here is that trafficking victims need very specific care, most prominently their need for safety. Many times, traffickers will threaten them or continue to offer the drugs they desire. In those instances, the victims will simply walk out of the shelter, right back into the life of drugs and prostitution.

Many of these victims have been trafficked since they were young teens. When they exit that life after one or two decades, they don’t have the skills necessary to function independently. Many individuals interviewed said they had to be taught basic concepts and life skills such as how to pay bills and go grocery shopping. Therefore, it’s important for those that provide housing to immediately provide wrap-around services like counseling, job training, legal, and other services along with housing assistance.

Why Transitional Housing Strategies Work Better Than Rapid Rehousing

Many federal funding organizations promote “rapid-rehousing” strategies. Such programs offer initial financial assistance to get someone into permanent housing quickly as the first step toward stabilization while also offering the wrap-around services.

A similar trend is a “housing first” model. In other words, first get a person into a long-term living space and then offer additional services to help her succeed. However, this isn’t the best approach for this population. Both the rapid-rehousing and housing-first models initially were used to address homelessness. When talking to trafficking victims or those who work directly with them, they underscore a need for order, rules, and structure along with a comforting homelike environment that comes with supervised transitional housing.

There are far too many triggers or opportunities for trafficking victims to relapse without the gradual introduction of independence that supervised transitional housing offers. Many smaller housing facilities provide a house mother or direct live-in supervision along with other wrap-around services. This approach seems to be the most successful housing model for this population.

Helping Victims Find Long-Term Housing

Once trafficking victims are ready to start looking for longer-term housing, a new set of problems arises. Even if they qualify for a housing voucher, they have to negotiate with a private landlord. Several victims tell stories of women, who are already traumatized, being repeatedly turned down by landlords. The women lose numerous deposits and often relapse back into drug use.

These women enter the housing search process at a disadvantage. They often have poor work histories, minimal funds for market-rate apartments, bad credit, criminal records, past-due bills, child-custody issues, evictions, and a host of other complications. It’s just not practical or realistic to expect them to be able to successfully negotiate with a private landlord on their own.

Establishing Relationships and Support Networks

The successful transition through these phases to finding long-term housing seems to have one common denominator – individual relationships. These women desperately need advocates who can help them navigate toward freedom and independence. Whoever gets the first cry for help needs to know whom to call and how to immediately get these women into emergency shelters or transitional housing.  This can’t happen after a two-week or two-month waiting period, it must be immediately.

Once the victim is safe, social services must be available immediately, overseen by a case worker or counselor trained to work with trafficking victims. These providers should aim for a transitional living arrangement lasting between 18 and 24 months. However, some shelters do not take someone that is going through detox or within a certain period of using drugs so a shorter-term duration may be needed at an interim facility first. During this time, victims should receive trauma counseling, employment training, legal counseling that includes a review of their records for possible expungement of criminal offenses, and coordination with child services to regain custody of their children, among others.

At the end of that time period, the women should be assisted in finding long-term housing. Case workers or counselors need to facilitate this move and help them establish a relationship with a landlord who is pre-screened and willing to accept these individuals. In other words, there needs to be a personal hand-off, not simply asking the victim to find it for themselves. The case worker or counselor should maintain contact with both the victim and the landlord for at least six months to ensure the relationship is off to a solid start.

It’s also important for a counselor or case worker to help victims find a community of support with other victims, survivors at this point. By putting the women in contact with a network of other women who were in similar situations, they can share experiences, counsel one another, and help successfully reject the life of human trafficking once and for all.

[Related: Educating the Next Generation of Police Officers about Human Trafficking]

Lastly, when addressing housing for trafficking victims, it is important to recognize that not every victim is ready to exit “the life” on the first contact, or even on the tenth contact for that matter. Providers must create a culture of trust with victims as they assist these women to take the necessary steps when they are ready. And when these women are ready, providers must be ready to take quick, compassionate, and trauma-informed action.

About the Author: Christi Scott Bartman, previously Program Director for Public Administration, Public Policy and Legal Studies at American Military University, is an anti-human trafficking advocate in Ohio.  She is a compassionate catalyst – being inspired by and inspiring others to make a difference in the world. She can be contacted on LinkedIn or through her website. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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