Homelessness & Sex Trafficking: What's the Connection?
Around two years after I moved to Chicago, I was sitting in a busy Starbucks on State Street when I noticed a young man, not much older than myself. He was standing at the register, counting out change to buy a cup of coffee, wearing dirty clothes with a ripped backpack slung across his shoulders and a pet carrier clutched in one hand. When he turned to the woman behind him to apologize for the delay caused by his small mountain of loose change the barista was sorting through, the woman disregarded him completely. His face fell as he took his receipt and the cup of coffee.
With a dejected look, he came and sat down near me and I noticed that a small black and white cat was sleeping soundly inside the carrier. I asked him about his pet, and he excitedly told me about how he had found him on the street. Our conversation continued and I came to find out that his name was Jason and he was homeless. When I asked him more about himself, he told me that, before he began living on the streets, he had loved to read, but now didn’t have any books. My heart ached for him, and I offered to take him to the Barnes & Noble down the street to buy him a book. His face lit up.
After exploring the aisles of the bookstore, I bought him the book of his choice and we stepped back outside to say goodbye. As I told him it was nice to meet him, he suddenly looked as though he were about to cry.
“Nothing… It’s just that nobody has ever given me anything that lasts.”
I never ran into Jason again, but that comment has stuck with me and I expect it always will. I realized that, while we may donate money or food to charities or even individuals themselves, it is so rare that we take the time to get to know someone living on the streets as more than just someone in need, but as a person. People may have given Jason money or bought him lunch, but he had never experienced a gift that would last more than the afternoon, a gift that was not only of value outside of his immediate needs, but related to who he was as a person – what he enjoyed doing, what he missed having the opportunities to do when he wasn’t constantly battling for his own survival.
All too often, we forget about the humanity of homeless people, of their identities outside of being in need - of who they were before they were homeless, of the person they saw themselves as before they lost everything. It is this need – this need to be acknowledged as a human being – that drives members of the homeless community deeper into poverty, into a poverty that encapsulates so much more than mere money. Often, it is also this need that makes homeless girls and women so vulnerable to sex trafficking.
“The Typology of Modern Slavery” lists homelessness as a major vulnerability factor for all forms of trafficking. In her autoethnology, Dr. Nancie Hudson discusses the trauma of growing up in poverty and her experience with homelessness as an adult. She cites the stigmatization of the lower economic classes by wealthier classes as one of the primary causes of such trauma. “Public apathy”, Hudson explains, “is perpetuated by media images of the negative stereotype of the poor that portrays them as deserving to be poor.” In fact, an Australian study on discrimination against the homeless contends that, all too often, “homeless individuals are not perceived as fully human… This elicits the worst kind of prejudice – disgust, and contempt”.
“The Typology of Modern Slavery” lists homelessness as a major vulnerability factor for all forms of trafficking.
As Hudson explains, the severity of such stigmatization is often the result of capitalistic societies, which creates the common misconception that anyone can gain membership to the upper-middle-class if they simply work hard enough. As a result, many individuals facing poverty and homelessness become victims of what is known as legitimized discrimination, or “discrimination against an individual whose stigmatized identity is perceived as in their control”; studies have shown that legitimized discrimination often has more damaging effects than other discriminations, largely because this blame is often internalized by members of the disadvantaged group.
Legitimized discrimination has severely detrimental effects. Members of the homeless community often face social rejection and exclusion. Hudson describes homelessness as “the lowest depth of loneliness. You feel as though no one cares whether you live or die.” Furthermore, such discrimination acts as a barrier for homeless individuals to gain support. In fact, the aforementioned Australian study found evidence supporting the theory that “homeless people who are arguably most in need of… identity resources… are least likely to benefit from them” due to their stigmatization. This makes homeless individuals particularly susceptible to sex trafficking, as a primary control method used by traffickers is to emotionally manipulate victims into believing that no one cares about them except the trafficker; this method is particularly effective when a victim has already been socialized by a discriminatory society into believing that they are both unloved and unwanted.
A primary control method used by traffickers is to emotionally manipulate victims into believing that no one cares about them except the trafficker; this method is particularly effective when a victim has already been socialized by a discriminatory society into believing that they are both unloved and unwanted.
Often, traffickers will also emotionally control their victims by insisting that the victims themselves are to blame for their situation. Beyond the external pressures created by legitimized discrimination, homeless individuals are also particularly susceptible to negative self-perceptions resulting from internalized shame, which, in turn, increases their vulnerability to such methods of control. The majority of participants interviewed in a Canadian study, spoke of “an overwhelming sense of failure [and] loneliness”, and “many blamed themselves” for their situation.
The stigmatization and subsequent social isolation experienced by members of the homeless community as a result of their treatment by conventional society not only creates severely damaging psychological effects but also creates significant factors of vulnerability for sex trafficking. Thus, we, as a society, must do more to support these individuals. We must begin to acknowledge their existence as well as their validity and humanity.
By simply taking a moment to let these individuals know that we not only see them, but we see them as people, as human beings worthy of love, we can begin to restore at least some of the dignity that has been stripped away from them.
Perhaps the most important thing that we can do is merely acknowledge the existence of people experiencing homelessness; to respond to people on the street asking for money, even if we do not have any change to give them. By simply taking a moment to let these individuals know that we not only see them, but we see them as people, as human beings worthy of love, we can begin to restore at least some of the dignity that has been stripped away from them.
You don't have to wait until December to be a part of the impact. Join the Dressember Collective and become part of a powerful community of advocates and donors furthering the work and impact of the Dressember Foundation through monthly giving.
About the Author
Morgan Wiersma is a student at Chicago City Colleges, where she plans to finish her Associate in Arts this spring before beginning to pursue an undergrad in Creative Nonfiction and Social Sciences. She calls her cozy apartment in downtown Chicago home and lives with her dwarf rabbit, Lola. A coffee enthusiast and avid writer, Morgan also enjoys small art projects, tea candles, and oversized flannel shirts.