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Domestic Violence

A Vicious Cycle: Domestic Abuse, Homelessness, Trafficking

Ending homelessness is central to fighting human trafficking.

On any given night, more than half a million Americans are homeless. Thanks to the determined efforts of federal, state, and local U.S. government agencies, as well as many non-profit organizations, homelessness across the nation has been reduced over the last seven years by 18% (or over 19,000 people), according to a 2017 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

However, not all regions are witnessing this decline, and the rise in homelessness among the most vulnerable populations is surging unchecked. A recent LA Times article reported that the Los Angeles homeless population has increased a whopping 75% in the past six years, largely due to the severe reduction in affordable housing and failed social reform policies. Other municipalities around the country have rising homeless numbers for similar reasons.

A closer look at HUD’s 2017 report reveals an alarming increase in homelessness among youth, the LGBT community, and women experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV). Nearly 40% of IPV survivors will become homeless; some will fortunately find space in a shelter while many others will end up on the streets. An estimated one of three women in the U.S. experience IPV in their lives and, on average, three women die every day in the U.S. as a result.

Statistics linking IPV and homelessness are alarming. Multiple studies report that more than 80% of homeless mothers with children are IPV survivors. Some women choose to stay in abusive relationships because of economic dependence upon their partners. The reality is that women who leave violent or abusive relationships are far more likely to live in poverty, and at high risk of eviction. Maintaining housing may be impossible for women who lose the economic support of their abusive partners and do not have the ability to support themselves or their children. A Northwestern University Joint Center for Poverty Research report states between 22-57% of homeless women state their reason for homelessness as IPV and financial vulnerability, and 25-50% of IPV survivors report losing a job for reasons associated with their abuse.

The shortage of safe harbors for women is disheartening. In 2015, the National Network to End Domestic Violence in a single day tracked over 31,500 requests for help from IPV shelters. Lack of resources and funding resulted in more than 12,197 of those being unmet, 63% of the requests that were not met were for housing. In contrast, 5,000 animal shelters exist across the U.S., compared to just 1,900 programs to aid IPV survivors.

Emergency shelters serving victims of IPV have very limited space and fill up rapidly. In fact, they often have a long waiting list for beds. Transitional shelters, those that allow women to stay longer and receive more specialized care, have even less capacity. This means that women leaving abusive situations often end up in homeless shelters with their children. Homeless shelters usually do not have inadequate resources to provide the necessary care for the trauma that women experience as a result of IPV. Survivors of IPV are at higher risk for depression, suicidal behavior, and addiction to alcohol and drugs, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

These realities help shed light on why IPV victims often don’t “just leave.” For a mother with children, the fear of having her children taken away if she cannot provide safe housing for them is not unfounded. With such dismal options, not leaving often seems to be women’s only choice.

The connection between homeless and human trafficking is clear. Most of the 1.6 million American children who run away each year will return home within a week, but those who don’t — almost a third — face an uphill battle to survive and eventually engage in “survival sex”. Homeless youth often runaway to escape abuse and violence at home, but are exposed to further sexual victimization and human trafficking once on the street. Unfortunately, the physical and social environments that they end up in increase the likelihood that they will engage in survival sex to meet their basic needs, such as shelter or food. Runaways are vulnerable to becoming easy targets for pimps/traffickers because they often cannot go home, have scarce resources, and may be more easily manipulated due to desperation and few other options. A common ploy among human traffickers is to lure victims into modern-day slavery with the promise of cash, drugs, or work. Even those who resist such inducements fall for decoys traffickers send in to shelters to befriend women, priming them to agree to slavery due to their extreme vulnerability and desperation.

One study (Greene) involving a nationally representative sample of shelter youth and interviews of street youth in multiple cities found that about 28% of youth living on the street and 10% of those in shelters engage in survival sex in exchange for food, shelter or money. Another study done in New York by Covenant House, a provider of services to homeless youth, found that approximately one in four youth had been a victim of sex trafficking or had engaged in survival sex, and that 48% of those who engaged in a commercial sex activity did so because they didn’t have a safe place to stay. One of the largest studies on this topic was released in 2017 by Covenant House and research partners, which included interviews with almost 1,000 homeless young people across 13 cities in the United States and Canada. The findings demonstrated that nearly one-fifth of homeless youth in the United States and Canada are victims of human trafficking. This figure was much higher among LGBT and transgender youth. Many homeless youth are young people defined as Transition Age Youth (TAY)–those between the ages of 16 and 24–who no longer qualify for state custody, foster care or youth shelters. Many TAY are served by organizations, such as 1736 Family Crisis Center, Saving Innocence, and Covenant House, my research partners in Los Angeles.

The good news is there are many ways to help. Many excellent organizations such as Safe Horizon and Los Angeles’ Jenesee Center offer vital services to runaway youth and women experiencing IPV, including housing, and mental health and legal services. And cities around the country are getting serious about solving the homelessness crisis as well; Los Angeles recently announced homelessness is a major priority for the local government, which has vowed to find solutions to the problem. The city of Los Angeles government spent $3.2 million on IPV programs in 2013-14, which funded intervention efforts, educational programs, and shelters. During the same period, New York spent $107.2 million, while San Francisco spent $4 million and Chicago $3.3 million on similar programs, according to the LA Times.

Despite vows to end human trafficking, President Trump has proposed major cuts to budgets for homeless services, and even suggested eliminating the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness and is charges with maximizing the effectiveness of the federal government in contributing to the end of homelessness. Youth and women experiencing violence and abuse have already faced intensely traumatic situations and do not need the added crisis of being homeless. Those who have the courage to leave an abusive situation deserve support and protection. Housing is usually at the forefront of their needs but shelter services that are currently available may only reach a fraction of those in need. More resources should be dedicated to agencies that serve IPV survivors because we can’t expect them to begin the process of healing and rebuilding their lives if they lack a safe and adequate home environment. Ending homelessness is central to fighting human trafficking.

Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California.


Jody M. Greene et al., U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services Admin. on Children, Youth and Families, HHS-100-99-0006, Sexual Abuse Among Homeless Adolescents: Prevalence, Correlates, and Sequelae 2-9 (2002), available at http://www.acf.hhs .gov/sites/default/files/opre/sex_abuse_hmless.pdf.

Jody M. Greene, Susan T. Ennett, & Christopher L. Ringwalt, Prevalence and Correlates of Survival Sex Among Runaway and Homeless Youth, 89 Am. J. Pub. Health 1406, 1408 (1999), available at PMC1508758/pdf/amjph00009-0102.pdf.

Kristen Finklea, Adrienne L. Fernandes-Alcantara, & Alison Siskin, Congressional Research Serv., R41878, Sex Trafficking of Children in the United States 6 (2014).…

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