Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth

Two Groundbreaking Studies of Covenant House Youth by The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research and the Loyola University Modern Slavery Research Project.


The story behind the studies...

Slavery is not a thing of the past. Human trafficking thrives worldwide... and victims of this vile industry tend to be the most vulnerable in society.

Homeless young people are targeted for this very reason.

As young trafficking victims arrived at Covenant House's 30 shelters across the Americas, one thing became clear: More had to be done to protect our kids.

So that's what we set out to do...


Covenant House began exploring opportunities to replicate and scale the groundbreaking study at Covenant House New York that shed new light on the link between homelessness and human trafficking.

Our mission was to find out the prevalence and nature of human trafficking among our youth – and arm the anti-trafficking community with better knowledge to fight this crisis.

The result was the largest ever study of human trafficking among homeless young people – with researchers from The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University (New Orleans) Modern Slavery Research Project (MSRP) invited to interview homeless young people across 13 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

MSRP researchers visited:

Anchorage, AK
Atlanta, GA
Detroit, MI
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Los Angeles, CA
New Orleans, LA
Oakland, CA
St. Louis, MO
Toronto, Ontario
Vancouver, British Columbia

The Field Center researchers visited:

Philadelphia, PA
Phoenix, AZ
Washington, D.C.

In total, 911 brave young people aged 17 to 25 were interviewed on a voluntary basis.


Findings from both studies revealed:

Nearly one in five (19.4%) of the 911 interviewed youth were victims of human trafficking, with 15% having been trafficked for sex, 7.4% trafficked for labor and 3% trafficked for both.

Other key findings:

• 21.4% of young women and 10% of young men interviewed had been trafficked for sex
• 26.9% of LGBTQ youth reported experiences consistent with the U.S. federal definition of sex trafficking
• 32.1% of the youth interviewed had engaged in some way in the sex trade at some point (40.5% of young females, 25.3% of young men and 56% of transgender youth)

From MSRP’s study:

19% of 641 youth were identified as victims of some form of human trafficking*

Sex Trafficking
14% were victims of sex trafficking, applying the U.S. federal definition of trafficking
Labor Trafficking
8% had been trafficked for other forced labor

3% of youth were trafficked for both sex & labor

Many youth described severe physical and psychological repercussions

"There was multiple rapes with me. Multiple kidnappings... I was stabbed in my leg..."

"It was a mind control thing. He called it free will. But it wasn’t free will... He made you think you wanted to stay."

*Statements from victims have been left anonymous for their protection

Homeless youth are especially vulnerable to trafficking...

68% of the youth who had either been trafficked or engaged in survival sex or commercial sex had done so while homeless




For the vast majority of youth, economic factors made them most vulnerable to traffickers and unwanted engagement in the sex trade



91% of respondents were approached by strangers or acquaintances who offered fraudulent job opportunities



19% of all youth interviewed had engaged in survival sex solely so that they could access housing or food

Other Factors

Drop-In Youth

Drop-In Youth

Trafficking among drop-in youth – or “street youth”

24% trafficked for sex
13% trafficked for labor



LGBTQ youth accounted for 36% of the sex trafficking victims



1 in 5 of all cisgender women
• More than 1 in 5 LGBTQ men
• More than 1 in 10 cisgender men

Experienced a situation considered sex trafficking

Aging out of the Foster System

Aging out of the Foster System

Youth with a history of involvement in the foster system accounted for...

27% of all youth engaged in the sex trade
26% of all youth who were labor trafficked

Runaway and homeless youth shelters can effectively help trafficking survivors and prevent other homeless youth from being exploited through:



Focus efforts on employment, housing opportunities and healthy sexuality/relationships to increase resilience to traffickers



Target locations where youth are being approached by abusers, such as on social media and online job sites, at bus stops, etc.

Confidential and Inclusive Identification Strategies

Confidential and Inclusive Identification Strategies

Standardize screening protocols for greater access to care, including for boys, LGBTQ youth and foster kids


Specialized Interventions

Include anti-trafficking orientation and drop-in programs, trauma-informed counseling, harm reduction training and victim relocation networks

From The Field Center’s study:

Youth Trafficking Study Result Charts

Legislators can play a role in ensuring that our youth are protected from trafficking

• Pass the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act in the U.S.
• Extend the Child Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking Act in Canada
• Allocate dedicated funding for additional shelters, beds and services for victims
• Pass "Safe Harbor" laws to allow young trafficking survivors to be treated as victims
• Implement human trafficking training for law enforcement
• Raise the age for aging out of foster care to 21

And YOU can help by raising awareness for young victims everywhere – share this page today:

Download Loyola Study Download UPenn Study