Monday, July 22, 2013

There is no (place like) home.

27,000,000: the estimated number of human trafficking victims in the world
          1644: the estimated number of US beds available to trafficking victims

You do the math.

Housing options for trafficking victims are severely limited nationwide. According to a Polaris Project survey, there are a total of 529 documented beds designated for trafficking victims, and another 1115 that are offered to trafficking victims among other vulnerable populations. A total of eight of these beds are in Illinois.

This is no small problem.

Last week the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force hosted a Housing Summit in order to connect key agencies that provide housing and shelter options for vulnerable populations like trafficking victims. The Summit sought to identify the gaps in the existing systems and to begin the long-term discussion on innovative ways to tackle them.

Challenges in the current system

The needs of trafficking victims are complex and diverse. Domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, and other temporary care systems have been viable resources, but they are often not equipped to provide the protection and trauma-based care that trafficking victims need. A lively discussion at the Housing Summit last week pinpointed the abundant challenges.

When providing support and resources for trafficking victims, a major obstacle is the diversity of the populations. Trafficking is a phenomenon that transcends socio-economic, educational, gender, age, and background differences, leading the victim services needed to be equally diverse. A safe setting for one victim may not be a wise option for another, a prime example being a victim needing protection from a perpetrator, necessitating security, confidentiality, and distance. Nonetheless, this type of setting cannot be provided for every victim, especially in open-access homeless shelters. A soft bed does not always equate a safe place.

Another frustration with the current system is the disorganization of resources and collaboration. First responders are not guaranteed a secure next step in regards to social service agencies because there is not an organized protocol nor centralized database for the various resources available to trafficking victims. Each agency is dependent on its own connections, none of which are ultimately responsible for the trafficking victim’s placement.

This concern overlaps into apprehension about some agencies’ lack of experience with trafficking victims. Safe bed providers – shelters, private families, and prison cells (yikes) may not have trained staff who understand the flight risk of trafficking victims, the trauma-based care needed in all communication with victims, and the safety needs – both physical and psychological – of the victims. Direct service providers express concern that faith-based supporters and other well-meaning individuals may not advocate a victim-centered approach to care and may not have a firm grasp on how to deliver trauma-based care.

In the most practical of concerns, social service providers also highlight difficulty with transportation of clients to the shelters. Independent agencies may be responsible to accompany trafficking victims anywhere from two miles to 200, depending on the location of the shelter. Public transportation may not be an appropriate option, and there is no streamlined response to this need. While calling 311 is an option, the service obligates a visit to a police station or a medical center before offering transportation. Moreover, given the tension between law enforcement and victims (many of whom have been mistreated by law enforcement officers, may have been threatened with deportation, or may have been denied help in the past) as well as between law enforcement and social service providers, this is an unattractive option. Social service providers have found the bureaucratic requirements involved in attaining permission from the Department of Human Services to take advantage of 311 transportation services to be more of an obstacle than helpful.

In the same vein, bureaucratic hoops regarding documentation for victims have proven to be destructive to obtaining safe housing for trafficking victims. Many victims lack 1) documentation at all, 2) matching documentation, or 3) documentation of legal status. Shelters are unable to verify victims’ ages, creating liabilities that they often cannot afford. They may not be able to service undocumented individuals or they may have other clientele requirements that bar particular trafficking victims from receiving care.

Some trafficked populations face more obstacles than others. Particularly under-resourced groups are trafficked males, trafficked transgender populations, and labor-trafficked populations (in contrast to female sex trafficking victims). Many of the presently utilized safe beds are for victims of domestic violence, which may be appropriate placements for female victims of sex trafficking. Few shelters have the necessary protection for male victims, and even fewer have appropriate options for transgender or transsexual victims. Placing a trans-woman in a male shelter, for example, can have traumatizing effects. Cook County lacks safe spaces and trained staff for these populations.

To that effect, a lack of “flexibility and common sense” on behalf of the shelters has presented unnecessary challenges in obtaining safe housing for trafficking victims. Treatment varies not only from shelter to shelter, but from staff person to staff person, and the lack of continuity has been a primary frustration for social services seeking provision for trafficking victims.

This list of concerns is far from exhaustive.

Looking ahead

While the problem is daunting, the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force and supporters are ready to wrestle the issue. The Housing Summit last week began the dialogue on potential responses to these challenges through innovation and collaboration.

Participants in the Summit discussed the physical shelter and housing options. Currently utilized are shelters for victims of domestic violence, for youth, and for people who are homeless, though some of the shortcomings are detailed above. Hotels also have potential for emergency placements, especially in strategic partnership with supportive hotels. An option for transitional housing is private family placements, which involve extensive training and liability for the families agreeing to offer shelter or housing to victims. For long-term placements, there are innovative models of scatter-site housing as well as communal living. There are many possibilities to continue exploring.

Participants also discussed the need for stages of change and providing housing for all three levels of need: emergency, transitional, and long-term placements. Particularly highlighted was potential for a tiered system of services to account for each level and stage of need, as well as for the diversity of trafficking victims’ profiles (age, gender, sexual orientation, legal status, familial status, type of trafficking, and more).

The Summit suggested improvements to the current system of response as well as the creation of new resources and new shelters specifically for victims of trafficking. Potential funding opportunities were also brought to the forefront to prioritize the coordination of trafficking victim resources.

This is just the beginning of the discussion. The Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force and the Summit participants will not rest until assured that human trafficking victims have safe spaces to the do the same.

The Housing Summit is just one component of the Task Force’s efforts to improve services to trafficking victims. We envision a strategic network of law enforcement and social service providers able to meet the various needs of each victim.

Alexa Schnieders
Program Development Intern

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