Experts predicted a -20 degree wind chill as I walked towards the metro in Washington, D.C., passing numerous people who appeared to be homeless hovering outside the station. Most businesses were shut down in preparation for the impending snowstorm. Layered in three pairs of pants and four overcoats, I immediately thought of the 1.6 million children, or one out of every 45 youths, that are homeless in the United States. Some of the hundreds and thousands of homeless women, children, and runaways across the country were facing freezing temperatures. Where would they spend that night and the nights ahead? How many of them would become victims of sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking because of their lack of shelter?One in three child runaways are targeted by traffickers within 48 hours of leaving the home. Was there any safe place for them to go?
The answer seems so simple -- homeless shelters and religious groups take people in on a regular basis. Police officers even tell college students in parts of Washington, D.C. not to worry about the homeless in the city. People who are homeless here are not utilizing their options of shelters that have not reached capacity, these officers claim.
But what about the abuse that takes place at homeless shelters? What about the fact that many well-meaning groups and organizations lack the resources or means to keep out pimps, recruiters for traffickers, and those who otherwise take advantage of helpless women and children? Those who target these locations because they know the vulnerabilities of the people who enter?
Shelters, safe houses, drop-in centers, and other presumed havens for the less fortunate are often rife with crime and dangers that lead women and children onto the street or into the hands of traffickers in the first place. They are lured by pimps of all ages and races who seem to be kind and act with compassion. Traffickers often promise a roof, clothing, shelter, food, but more than anything, a sense of stability. Security. Community. It is a troubling, dysfunctional reality, but many women and girls who find themselves in prostitution or human trafficking come from dysfunctional family dynamics. Between 75-95 percent of all prostitutes were victims of child sexual abuse. Many others were abused or neglected. These are women and girls that, more than anything else, seek certainty and safety -- basic needs we all have as human beings. When relationships of trust and concern shift to abuse, it does not seem out of the ordinary to individuals who have been exploited or abused in the past. Even in a traumatic, gruesome human trafficking scenario, victims become accustomed to a cycle - they normalize their relationship with the trafficker, periodic highs and lows, and camaraderie with the other victims and traffickers. Victims do this to get through to the next minute, to survive. They don't have to fear the unknown of what might happen if they tried to leave. They can avoid fear of what lies outside of the trauma which they have already endured, trauma that has put them in a survival mode which rejects the risks of anything potentially more unbearable than what they already experience... it entraps. It takes over. It is almost impossible to break through.
Imagine a homeless teen who has left an abusive relationship and has a baby. Imagine she retreats to a shelter where aggressive, belligerent, or intoxicated people accost her, make snide comments about her child, and multiply the fears that first led her to the shelter. Should she stay?
A trafficker will seem generous, affectionate, offer care and comfort for this mother and child. It may seem, at first, to be the best option. And even when the situation goes awry -- she goes out on the streets, being watched by her pimp, giving all that she earns to him... he is still watching out to make sure other pimps don't interfere. He is guarding "his commodity." In some way, it might even make the teen feel like he values her, because she is producing something for him. Gaining that sense of significance creates a bond with the trafficker and another mental block. Furthermore her baby is at home, fed, and has a place to sleep. Isn't this better, she thinks, than the shelter where she was raped and had no space to herself? Isn't it preferable to be somewhere with people who have become familiar, a man or woman who occasionally gives her affection and care, sometimes bestowing her or her baby with comforting gifts? Isn't it better than having to guard her child from strangers every second? Pimps invest time and energy in their "product" - as long as it helps them make a profit. A child or traumatized woman may not feel the same sense of worth or personal investment from strangers at shelters who change with hourly shifts. They may not feel a comparative sense of routine or stability.
And there is of course the ever-looming threat if she decides to leave. Will someone tell her trafficker where she went? Will the trafficker harm her or her child in retaliation? Rape her child? Gang rape or beat her until she is almost dead for her disloyalty?
The possibility is too grim, too severe, especially after what she has already experienced: shame, a lack of value, guilt over her "choices," depression, and humiliation from being raped or forced to have sex with so many clients.
What about shelters for women and children only? Surely in a city like Washington, D.C. these resources must be abundant.
Sadly, shelters are greatly lacking for women, girls, and boys who have been rescued from human trafficking. Non-profits struggle to secure housing for victims, in Washington, D.C. and nationwide. Some facilities require extensive intake procedures which, while valid and understandable, require victims to rehash their experiences at all hours of the night. These victims often have to describe their history and trauma in great detail to complete strangers while they are still incredibly raw emotionally and lack much, if any, support. Some facilities treat victims like criminals; tight security may be the only way to keep traffickers out and victims, particularly youth, from running away. But locks are disturbing for obvious reasons -- they limit people who have already been living in slavery. Physical restraints create a new kind of disempowerment and anxiety without offering a sense of assurance about what comes next. Under this tremendous pressure, it suddenly feels so much more natural, almost logical, to leave: At least victims know what to expect from their pimp. This indefinite safe house with strangers and no context can be too overwhelming.
As I exited the metro, the snow had started to fall and the streets were deserted. No one lingered by the station. I thought back to the crowd I had seen huddled outside earlier, bracing themselves for one of the coldest, windiest nights in years. Where were they now? Even more on my mind were the young women and unseen but most certainly present boys and girls who would work this night as any other night.
The case for choosing a life on the streets is more complex than we admit.
Mary David Human trafficking expert, motivational speaker, and writer