Housing Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking Study

Housing Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking Study

Housing Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking Study

Executive Summary

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2022 tasked the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with conducting a study assessing the availability and accessibility of housing and services for individuals experiencing homelessness or housing instability who are survivors of human trafficking or at risk of being trafficked. “Survivors of trafficking,” as referenced in this study, refer to people who are victims of crimes involving the exploitation of a person for labor, services, or commercial sex (DOJ, n.d.). This study primarily uses the term “survivor” except in certain circumstances, including when quoting research or describing policies or data that use the term “victim.” Policymakers have an extensive body of research on the causes and conditions of housing insecurity and homelessness nationally. Similarly, there is a growing body of research on the service needs of survivors of human trafficking and the variety of program models providing support in a trauma-informed, survivorcentered way. However, the specific housing and service needs of survivors of trafficking who experience homelessness and deep housing insecurity is a comparatively underexplored topic. HUD’s core rental assistance programs help foster stability, affordability, and choice for nearly ten million households, but these programs reach fewer than one in four who are eligible (Poethig, 2014).

HUD’s homeless assistance programs similarly provide critical shelter, temporary assistance, and permanent housing in communities around the country, but many programs are oversubscribed, contributing to growing numbers of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. We know that access to those housing resources can protect against housing instability and homelessness, which increase the risk of a person being trafficked, and that having housing stability helps survivors from being in environments that could lead to revictimization (Warren, Drazen, and Curtis, 2017; Williams and Gwam, 2021).

Congress tasked HUD with assessing several issues related to the kinds of services and housing options available and accessible to survivors. Using contributions from a wide range of stakeholders and research literature, this study presents an overview of methods of conducting outreach to survivors and assessing their needs; available resources for housing and services; policies and procedures that shape access to mainstream housing and services; barriers to fair housing; and best practices in housing and service delivery.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collects data on human trafficking from local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies through its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. The FBI reported 2,023 incidents of human trafficking in 2020—of which 84 percent were for sex trafficking and 16 percent for labor trafficking—but Department of Justice (DOJ) research suggests this is only a small portion of trafficking cases (CRS, 2022; National Institute of Justice, 2020).The most comprehensive available data source on the experience of human trafficking in the United States comes from the National Human Trafficking Hotline (Trafficking Hotline), which received reports of 10,359 trafficking situations in 2021 and identified 16,554 possible victims. Although Trafficking Hotline data still more accurately reflect cases reported to authorities and people who were aware of the hotline than true prevalence rates, these data do contain some cases in which the potential victims did not want to report to law enforcement. In these data, more sex trafficking cases than labor trafficking cases were reported to the hotline. Of cases reported to the hotline, 76 percent involved sex or sex and labor, and only 10 percent of reported cases were labor trafficking alone. Of the cases reported to the Trafficking Hotline, most survivors were women who had been victims of sex trafficking; however, men made up the largest share of survivors of labor trafficking. Data from the Trafficking Hotline and other research suggest that certain iii groups, including noncitizens, African- American, Hispanic/Latino, and LGBTQIA+ youth survivors, are disproportionately represented. However, the available evidence suggests there is considerable undercounting of certain trafficking situations and a high degree of uncertainty about the characteristics of trafficking survivors nationally (Dank, 2021; Ferrel, 2019).

The principal finding of this study is that, although many program models and approaches to service provisions exist that are well suited to addressing the housing needs of survivors of trafficking, they are typically not scaled to meet the need. Beyond increased resources and increased training, technical assistance is needed to better coordinate across often siloed housing and service providers and to better integrate trafficking-focused providers into the mainstream housing and homelessness systems.

Methods of conducting outreach to survivors and assessing their needs. Trafficking survivors are too often invisible to service providers, even those service providers working in often intersecting fields, such as domestic violence or sexual assault. Despite survivors frequently coming in contact with medical providers and law enforcement, analyses show those institutions only identify a small portion of trafficking cases (National Institute of Justice, 2020; Hainaut, Thompson, and Ades, 2022). Identifying survivors can be difficult for a host of different reasons, including fear of retaliation by their traffickers, interaction with law enforcement or immigration officials, or even judgment from people or systems that are meant to provide support. Being able to better identify survivors and understand their housing and service needs requires building trust and is a critical starting point for improvements to the housing and services system. Outreach processes are inherently complex given the hidden nature of trafficking, with some important progress needed on reaching out to and identifying survivors to connect them with services, engaging siloed housing and service providers, coordinating service delivery, and building capacity of the systems and service providers who are working with survivors already. This report discusses validated assessment tools for transitional age youth (aged 16–25) and minors and general protocols that could be used in other service and housing settings; however, there is no one-size-fits-all method. Collaboration with culturally and community-specific partners is a critical approach for providers to both reach and engage with survivors—particularly those with intersectional experiences and identities, including people of color, those with limited English proficiency, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people with disabilities. Across the board, policymakers and service providers must address how engaging with these outreach and assessment processes can be complex, burdensome, and retraumatizing for survivors.

Availability of resources for housing and services. A wide variety of housing resources meant for survivors exists, but the primary constraint of both specialized resources available to certain target groups and housing assistance generally—as well as specialized resources available to certain groups—is that there are not enough resources to serve everyone who could benefit. Whether survivors can access these resources is influenced by the type of housing assistance or shelter available, the provider and their reputation in the community, the duration of the assistance, the intensity of services, where the resources are offered, and where the resources can be used. These differences often mean that certain types of assistance are better suited to different survivors’ needs or are best able to support survivors at different times—for example, addressing an immediate crisis versus promoting ongoing housing stability.

Access to mainstream housing and services. The policies and procedures guiding how different housing programs operate play a major role in whether and how survivors can access support. Getting access to the appropriate mix of housing and services in the first place presents a major challenge to survivors iv who often must navigate complex, siloed programs that do not work together in a coordinated way. In addition, programs that rely on private market housing can present a challenge to survivors, who often struggle to find landlords willing to rent to them because of documentation requirements, criminal records, credit issues, poor rental history, or immigration status.

Barriers to fair housing. Beyond procedural barriers to certain kinds of housing assistance, survivors often face unique barriers to fair housing. The survivor community is disproportionately made up of groups that face systematic discrimination based on their race, color, national origin (including those with limited English proficiency), sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), familial status, and other protected characteristics. Survivors may also experience discrimination based on factors that are proxies for discrimination on a protected class basis, such as immigration status, language, and ethnicity. Survivors can also be targets for exploitative behavior in housing in a way that preys on their personal trauma—because of a fear of losing housing, experiencing housing instability, revictimization, or having to engage with the criminal justice system or immigration enforcement.

Best practices in housing and service delivery. Even with these real, systematic challenges to accessing appropriate housing resources, service providers around the country are operating successful program models for survivors. The most promising programs share a consistent approach: a commitment to trauma-informed, survivor-centered service delivery that values the autonomy and choice of survivors. This approach is best reflected in the growth of programs targeting trafficking survivors that use a flexible financial assistance model or offer a continuum of housing options as well as provide for wraparound supportive services tailored to each survivor’s needs and circumstances.

The findings in this report are intended to inform an ongoing discussion involving policymakers, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience. Although developing a full set of recommendations will require more research, discussion, and stakeholder engagement, the findings of this report suggest several potential ways to improve availability and access to housing and services for survivors:

  • More support to foster collaboration and streamlining across systems, such as tools, training, and convenings on interagency cooperation, leveraging resources, and navigating policies and procedures.
  • Increased trafficking survivor-specific housing resources, particularly to increase access to longterm housing assistance and wraparound services when needed.
  • Investment in flexible funding sources, either through considering how major funding sources could be made more flexible or through increasing funding for the programs that currently have the most flexibility.
  • More meaningful engagement, partnership, and funding to directly support culturally specific and community-based organizations.
  • Greater focus on making practical changes to housing assistance applications, eligibility, screening, and intake processes, including with the use of technology, to reduce the traumatizing effects of navigating siloed systems.
  • More inclusion and elevation of people with lived expertise in substantive areas of program design, policymaking, and leadership.
  • Increased emphasis on trauma-informed, survivor-centered service provision approaches within existing housing and homeless assistance providers.
  • Provide education and training targeted to service providers and housing program staff on survivors’ rights and housing barriers, including housing protections under the Violence Against v Women Act and related laws, how to address issues related to criminal records or bad or no credit histories, landlord engagement methods, and the rights of noncitizens and survivors with trafficking-specific immigration statuses and undocumented survivors.

Survivors have diverse backgrounds and experiences; therefore, individual paths toward healing can vary considerably. Given this heterogeneity, policymakers looking to employ these promising program models should seek out the perspectives of survivors of labor and sex trafficking and meaningfully integrate their contributions into program design. Survivors’ perspectives are especially vital to understanding the unique needs and experiences of key groups that are overrepresented among survivors, namely: youth and young adults, including those with involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice system; LGBTQIA+ individuals and youth, in particular; noncitizens and survivors with certain immigration statuses; and African-American and American-Indian/Alaska Native survivors. At the core of these varied experiences is a basic reality: safe and affordable housing helps prevent people at risk of trafficking from experiencing the kind of instability that can increase the risk of victimization, fosters stability that can prevent survivors from being re-victimized, and, ultimately, supports survivors on their complex journeys to healing.

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