Human trafficking continues to be a concern for Alaska’s most vulnerable, especially homeless youth, according to a recent study by Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project. The study focused on clients of Covenant House Alaska as well as nine other Covenant Houses across the U.S and Canada.
According to Josh Louwerse, Youth Engagement Program Coordinator at Covenant House in Anchorage, homelessness is a huge risk factor for trafficking.
“Sixty-five youth from our program here in Anchorage were interviewed for Loyola’s project,” Louwerse told the Catholic Anchor. “Of those, 28 percent were identified as victims of sex or labor trafficking.”
Of the 65, 46 were residents of the Covenant House Shelter and 19 were utilizing the agency’s drop-in services.
Covenant House International is the largest, primarily privately-funded charity in the Americas offering services to homeless youth. The study was conducted between February 2014 and June 2016.
Anchorage also received attention in January of this year when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded $l.5 million to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness (ACEH), a coalition of 39 local organizations working with homeless services in Anchorage.
The money will not be used for existing programs, but will be part of a Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project, with Covenant House as the lead agency. Louwerse said the money will help identify gaps in resources for homeless youth.
Julie Sullivan, communications director at Covenant House, said it’s “rare that agencies in a community partner as well as they do in Anchorage.” Catholic Social Services, a community leader in providing shelter, is one of the 39 organizations in the coalition.
Human trafficking is defined as modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. It can involve adults as well as children, but at-risk youth are particularly susceptible.
Louwerse said the problem is a very hard crime to quantify, but there is an increasing awareness of the issue.
“It feels like the problem’s worse, but we’re actually better able to identify victims more quickly now,” he said.
One Anchorage congregation felt called to help trafficking victims.
“Priceless, an anti-sex trafficking organization, was birthed out of the women’s group at Changepoint church,” said Stephanie Staveland, director of survivor care at the Anchorage agency. Today, Priceless is Christian but independent of a particular church or denomination. The project works with women who have been trafficked by providing an assessment of needs, referrals and a year or more of mentoring.
Staveland said mentors come from many denominations, including Catholic parishes.
Jasmine Khan, a parishioner at Holy Family Cathedral, recently completed mentor training at Priceless.
She previously worked in mental health therapy for youth and was praying about how God might be calling her when she discovered Priceless.
“I’m learning the skills to deal with the tremendous amount of distress of these victims,” she said. “Their boundaries have been destroyed. They’ve been tortured or blackmailed.”
Khan sees the sexualization of our culture as one starting point for trafficking.
“We tend to persecute the woman, not the pimp and not the client — society has a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude.”
And she sees a demise in our culture of the Catholic principle of “the dignity of the human person,” as well as the threat of online predators luring young people into dangerous situations.
Priceless, supported mostly by private donations and churches, as well as some community and corporate grants, pays for trauma therapy as well as drug and alcohol treatment. Women come with all kinds of unique needs, Staveland said.
“Every single client we’ve seen has post-traumatic stress syndrome,” said Staveland, who estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the victims they see have a history of child sexual abuse going back to as young as two years old.
“Studies show that within 72 hours of being homeless, a young person is approached by traffickers,” she added.
Louwerse said making people aware of the problem is part of Covenant House’s mission. He and other staff from Covenant House are traveling the state training folks and having conversations about recognizing trafficking.
From Alaska’s major cities to small towns and villages, folks from Covenant House are visiting coffee shops, tattoo parlors, and other venues where victims may be spotted.
A couple of years ago, Louwerse said her group spoke with the airport police since the Anchorage airport is a primary conduit for trafficking.
Victims arrive in Alaska lured by the promise of a lucrative job, perhaps in the fishing industry, only to find they’ve been caught in slave labor, he said. In an eye-opening finding in the Loyola report, 91 percent of youth across the 10 cities “reported being offered lucrative work opportunities that turned out to be fraudulent, scams, or sex trafficking.”
Other victims fly in from the Alaskan Bush, and are quickly met by “helpful” strangers who befriend or romance them, eventually stealing their identification and holding them hostage for sexual exploitation.
Loyola University, a Jesuit, Catholic university, found in their Anchorage study that 36 percent of women they interviewed had engaged in the sex trade, and 27 percent of men. Among youth who self identify as LGBTQ, 43 percent had traded sex commercially.
Eighteen percent of respondents were found to have been trafficked for labor. In Alaska, that often means forced drug dealing or forced criminal activity “such as working as muscle or a thief for a gang.”
Among several recommendations, the study urged Alaska to create “safe harbor” protections which immunize minors from prosecution for engaging in commercial sex acts, and require training for law enforcement to identify victims and use trauma-informed techniques to interview potential victims.
Louwerse said that the community should work to prevent trafficking by being more engaged with youth.
“People should get involved in schools,” he said. “Kids need community support. Adults who get involved in kids’ lives make a huge difference.”