In Philadelphia, human trafficking happens every day, according to human rights experts and advocates.
Many of those victims are homeless youth — among the most vulnerable population — said John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, which provides beds and support services to those in need.
Now, in the largest study of its kind, researchers have found that roughly one-fifth of all homeless youth in the U.S. are victims of human trafficking, often for purposes of sex.
The study also showed that LGBTQ youth were “disproportionately affected.” That population accounted for nearly 20 percent of the respondents interviewed, and for one-third of the sex-trafficking victims.
Philadelphia was among the dozen cities the report investigated, along with Toronto and Vancouver. The others were: Anchorage, Atlanta, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Oakland, California, Phoenix, Arizona, St. Louis, and Washington.
The report, "Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth," is composed of two studies, one involving sex trafficking and the other involving labor trafficking. Covenant House funded the report, through a grant from the Hickey Family Foundation.
Officials from the University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice and Research; and those from New Orleans’ Loyola University Modern Slavery Research Project released the findings on Monday.
Staffers interviewed more than 900 homeless young people who access services primarily through Covenant House.
About a fifth of those interviewed were victims of some form of human trafficking, which could also involve acting as drug runners. The youths who spoke with researchers were all 21 and under.
In Philadelphia, Ducoff said Covenant House has recently been able to expand to offer 76 beds for homeless youths. While that is a step in the right direction, he said, far more has to be done, both in the city and around the nation to provide the kind of support young people need.
“This is incredible trauma for a young person… it involves a long road to healing,” he said.
Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center, said the number of total victims was probably higher than the reports show. “There’s a whole hidden population we aren’t seeing,” she said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
What the studies do help show, said Ducoff, is that human trafficking is a local concern not just an international issue.
“If we want to reduce instances of human trafficking, we have to look at youth homelessness,” he said. “These are the same kids.”