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51% #1670: Human Trafficking And Unhoused Youth, Part One

On today’s 51%, we begin a two-part series on human trafficking and unhoused youth. I ride along with a street outreach coordinator for a youth shelter. And we’ll meet a woman who has walked the Underground Railroad to raise awareness about human trafficking.

Bri Phillips is the street outreach program manager for CAPTAIN Community Human Services based in Saratoga County, New York. CAPTAIN has programs to address youth homelessness, poverty, hunger, family dysfunction, and human trafficking. Phillips reaches out to people on the street who are homeless or in danger of being trafficked. We met up in Clifton Park for a ride-along in one of the Street Outreach vans. The back space is stocked with labeled plastic bins and drawers full of food, clothes, and hygiene kits.  

“We are known as the boots on the ground of this organization,” Phillips said. “If people say, you know, where is your street outreach team? The answer is, I may not know at this moment, because they're meeting the needs of the community. The van that we're riding in right now, is so important, because it actually is stocked with Wi-Fi in the back. We have clothing, we have food, we have resources and referrals. And so our goal is that by having our phones on us, we go and meet the needs of clients right where they're at.”

Phillips says the street outreach team, which has five team members, works specifically with 13-24-year-olds.

“One of my favorite things about our program is that we can often prevent situations by being confident and comfortable and going up to someone, we aren't trying to rescue them, we're trying to provide opportunity to learn more, or to choose to not go down a path if they have that education to be able to say no,” Phillips said. “And so half the time we are just introducing ourselves, we're sharing what Street Outreach is -- which is a non-judgmental and voluntary way to learn about your community services and access them with support, if you'd like it.”

The two states with the highest homeless population are New York with more than 92,000 and California with over 150,000, respectively.

Phillips says Street Outreach staff have Facebook pages because people experiencing homelessness may not always have a cell phone with data.

“So if they're at the library or a laundromat, and they can get on Wi-Fi, that's how they connect with us,” Phillips said. “And so we're trying to change the game of how services are provided to individuals by breaking down the barriers, and also sharing with them how safe it can be if you build that trust.”

Phillips says outreach workers have to work to build trust.

“Because there are times that I have met with a young woman or a young man and I may not see them again for about three months because it's either overwhelming, their situation has changed… And to have someone call you three months later, and still pick up that phone and say, ‘It's so nice to hear your voice. How are you,’ is what changes the game,” Phillips said. “With other providers at times, if you've missed your appointment, you missed the chance to get the help. And with us, we're saying the door is always open.”

Phillips says the number of young people she helps changes seasonally.

“One of the things we see is that in the summer, we're not getting those calls from the school districts,” Phillips said. “They're not seeing the lunch lady who's noticing that they're not getting their meal, and then calling us and saying, ‘Hey, can you come chat with this youth.’ So in the summer, that is why drop-ins are really important for us. Right now we have about 15 youth on our caseload here in Saratoga. And with that being said, within Safe Harbor, those at risk of human trafficking, we have over 20 that we have worked with.”

In Danger Of Human Trafficking

Phillips says most of her human trafficking cases are brought to her attention by the community, people who notice concerning behavior.

“Individuals or youth that are experiencing human trafficking may not even know that this is occurring,” Phillips said. “And so for us, when we do kind of peek behind that door, and someone says, ‘This may be happening.’ Again, it's an opportunity to educate. And we are not necessarily saying to the youth, ‘We know that this is occurring,’ we are saying there are some vulnerabilities you're experiencing due to either unstable housing, lack of support from your family, or even lack of access to education. And so, what is it that we can do to build up your resiliency, so that if you were to ever encounter a situation like this, what can we do to walk you out of it?”

Phillips says those experiencing poverty and food insecurity are at a higher risk of trafficking.

“That idea of, ‘I'm gonna go help my mom get money so that we can pay for the groceries,’ can lead to youth possibly going on, like, Craigslist to find a job because they may not know of Indeed yet. And so they're just job searching,” Phillips said. “Well, there you may find the type of job that's a little bit more insecure, unstable. And when they go to that job, depending on what's happening, you know, sometimes we've seen where it's been a modeling gig or even at a massage parlor. And the individual is receiving gratification from what happened because they're young, they just made money for their family. They worked probably very hard. And when they come home, there's a gratefulness that comes from the family because they just had money that they haven't seen before. And so a youth may not realize because they felt really uncomfortable, and, ‘I didn't tell my parents exactly everything that happened. It's OK because I got the money and we're actually going to eat tonight.’ And so there's a huge part of being non-judgmental when you're working with a youth that may be experiencing human trafficking. Because for us to open that door and say, could I share with you a different side of it, or a different lens? In that moment, they still may not realize it, because we do call it ‘survival sex,’ I will do this for this an exchange. And so sometimes it's for a place to sleep, it is for that thing to eat.”

“Survival Sex”

Phillips says when a young person becomes homeless, the first 48 hours are most critical.

“It is known that within the first 48 hours of a youth being on the street they are asked if they want to engage in that type of situation that could lead to human trafficking,” Phillips said. “And so can we catch that moment before it happens.”

Phillips says when teens run away, it is often because of a boiling point, meaning they rush out without even a phone.

“And so how are we getting to our friend's house, we may go to the nearest gas station, and say, ‘Hey, I don't know you, you don't know me, would you be willing to put this call in for me?’ Or we may find someone at a laundromat and say, ‘Could I borrow your phone to make a call?’ That is an exchange right there where someone is helping you,” Phillips said. “And as a young adult, or even as an adult, you may not know what that meant, for that other person that may have been an agreed upon situation in their head where because I just gave you my phone, I'd like you to spend some time with me. And we're not thinking of that because again, in survival.”

Phillips says she never judges someone for being in a “survival sex” situation.

“Because when you're left with no goods, no money, no anything, what are you left with? You're left with yourself,” Phillips said. “And so people are just trying to make it by. And that's what's most important for me when we're working with individuals is to understand that they are doing their best at every moment. And what can we do to actually say, ‘Hey, if you take my services, you could do less, you might be able to go to sleep tonight and still have food in your stomach, still be able to go out the next day and be able to have something to pay for. And I'm not gonna ask you to go talk to anyone else but me.’ And that is like the most meaningful thing I think to be able to say to a youth.

Phillips says the most vulnerable age range for “survival sex” situations is 18-21-year-olds because in the eyes of the Department of Social Services, financially, you're considered an adult at the age of 21. So if you leave home before the age of 21 and you want help from Social Services, you are likely going to be asked to return home.

“You're teeter tottering between needing to be in the custody of your parents for them to care for you,” Phillips said. “But also, kind of being at that age where you may be ready to go on your own, you just don't have all of those resources. So we do a lot of harm reduction during that moment in that age range to kind of work with youth to say, ‘Is there something I could do to help you actually stay in your home? Could I help you build resiliency to help you communicate with your parents?’ Because we are actually reunification based, if we can make that happen we absolutely will.”

Phillips says she always asks the young person, “What is your goal?”

“If they're ready to build self-sufficiency, then absolutely, we will, we will go there with them,” Phillips said. “At the same time, I think it's very important to be role models that could say, ‘You don't have to do this now, if you don't want to, and I will still be a part of your process.’ You know, I don't ever want someone to look at street outreach and say, ‘I can only access them if I'm truly homeless,’ it's not true.”

Phillips says often times in human trafficking situations, the abuser is also their boyfriend.

“It truly can be anyone,” Phillips said. “The one thing that's very fascinating when you look at the human trafficking statistics is that it's often not a stranger, you and I may think that it's similar to the movie taken where someone just gets pulled out from that bed and smuggled, and it's happening right here. And that's where that idea of it being from your hometown, and people that know you, because the people that can seek out your vulnerabilities are the people that may have known you the longest, or the people that you are getting the closest to, because in that moment, they need to know the characteristics about you to help kind of manipulate that. So it can happen through a relationship with a boyfriend. And the other thing I would like to mention is that it doesn't matter what gender, often we're not seeing young men or men come out and say that this has happened to them. Because truthfully, they may not be having the choice of what gender they're interacting with sexually. And that can be really harmful to their, you know, identity of who they are. And when they come to speak to us about it. They don't want to be judged. And so we aren't hearing as much from them. Those relationships begin by, ‘I really care about you right now, I noticed that you don't really have anyone. And so I've got a place you can come stay with me.’ You stay with the person for a little while, and you feel safe and you feel secure. When you feel secure is the moment that often that big fear comes in for youth and young adults, because they didn't realize that maybe the months they were staying with this individual or the weeks that maybe that individual was actually tallying how much that time they thought they owe. And that youth did not know that was part of the agreement.”

Phillips drives us to an encampment where a situation like that had happened. In the parking lot of a grocery store, I can just make out a thin trail through the woods.

“You follow kind of the line of the foliage,” Phillips said. “And then you want to see is there a walking path? And so one of the things you can see back there is there's actually a flag. And that was a sign that there was someone back there. Garbage is another sign because where are people going to be able to dispose their stuff. And this encampment is one that literally is right next to a grocery store. And so people are shopping here every day and they don't realize that just around the corner people have been living here.”

Phillips says the encampment is now broken down, but she picked up a young woman here once.

“So this young woman was in our shelter between the ages of 13 and 17,” Phillips said. “She had left our shelter, her parents had split up. And when she was back here in New York, she went into a type of, like, affordable housing situation. She was young. And so what was happening was at night, there was a curfew on this housing, yet everyone else here doesn't have a curfew. And so she saw that and said, ‘Well, I kind of want to stay out at night a little bit longer.’ And she did. And it led to her losing her housing. And so when that housing came down, she found housing with everyone back here.”

Phillips says an adult shelter was hosting a “drop-in center” and people who knew Phillips observed the young woman may have been in a human trafficking situation.

“And she was around some men that they felt were unsafe,” Phillips said. “The language that was being used is, ‘this is our party girl, this is the young woman that's always with us.’ And again, we held the concern first. If we go up to the young woman and say, ‘I am so scared for you, I can't believe you're engaging with these people.’ I don't know if I would ever see her again. And so what we do is, again, we introduce ourselves, we say this is what we offer, this is what we're here for. And in her case, she did ghost us for about three weeks, we couldn't find her. And so we go through these encampments as part of our work, and she actually found me one day, and she came up and she said, ‘Hey, I heard I'm on your list.’ And I said, ‘What list,’ and you know, ‘list of people that may need help for trafficking,’ And so when she said to me, ‘I think I'm on it,’ I said, ‘Do you feel you would need to be? Do you feel that you're in a place where you actually need the support for something like that?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And I was like, ‘OK,’ then I said, ‘You can join my list.’”

Phillips says she is trained to assess the situation and ask the young person if they want to leave.

“And in that moment, she said, ‘Absolutely.’ And she did.”

Phillips says she pooled all of her resources, grabbed someone from the adult shelter, and helped the young woman who was being trafficked to call her mom.

“And her mom hadn't heard from her in a long time,” Phillips said. “And I said, ‘Ma'am, I have your daughter with me, and she'd like to come home.’ And the woman just started crying.”

Phillips wants young people to know that her offer of help never expires.

“Because if today's the day, it's the day, and we will stay with you until we figure it out,” Phillips said. “And if it's not, we will respectfully come and find you another day and say, ‘How are you today?’”

As we pull away from the encampment, I see that the area is heavily wooded, with trash strewn about.

“And so this was actually where she was sleeping every night engaging in what we would call survival sex,” Phillips said. “And so she wasn't one person back here. She was a part of a group of over five other people that were all living back there. But she had a very specific role. And that was something that she couldn't tolerate anymore, and was ready to get going.”

The Stigma

I ask Phillips about the stigma facing the unhoused.

“Number one, if you don't know how to get involved, ask someone like myself,” Phillips said. “My favorite thing to do is actually what I'm doing with you right now, I will take people out in this van and talk to them about the ways that they can get involved, because you may not know the opportunity that you have in store or what you could offer to an individual experiencing homelessness. And so a lot of the things and the goods that we give out, clothing, food and hygiene, are things that you may have in your room. So if you're going on a vacation, and you have those little travel soaps, take that back with you and bring it to a program like myself, because that's exactly what we give out to people.”

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2019, more than 560,000 people across the country were homeless, the majority Black and Hispanic males.

Phillips says people are not “homeless.” They are experiencing homelessness.

“Sometimes we say, ‘That's a homeless person.’ I don't love that language because this is a moment in their life. And you and I may not have known who they were before,” Phillips said. “By getting to know these individuals, we find out they are college graduates, that they are some of the most profound artists. And it's access that they don't have in this moment, when they're meeting us, they don't have access to an art studio to make the next biggest piece, they may not have access to a kitchen to be able to cook the food that would actually keep them healthy. And so they may be ill while they're out on the street.”

Phillips says drug use is a huge problem, but her team isn’t there to judge.

“One of the things that we've been working on is being allies and saying to individuals, ‘We can supply you with Narcan. We can supply you with fentanyl test strips so that you can actually test your drugs before you use them.’ Because we're also trying to say, ‘Who you are and what you're doing, it's not that it's not okay. But is it serving a purpose to help you get to who you want to be, and where you want to go,’” Phillips said. “By communicating with someone, you are helping them start to talk and create like a living narrative. If we walk by these individuals, and we just look, there's a lot of silence that happens in their day, and ours as well, where we just don't know. But if you open up that narrative, and you're willing to take the conversation, you may find they actually have a home, and they don't know how to get back, or that they have a skill set that they are waiting to utilize. And they just need that opportunity.”

Phillips drives me next to a run-down motel in Clifton Park.

“When individuals are placed by the Department of Social Services, we don't have enough shelters. And so people are placed in motels,” Phillips said. “When an individual gets placed in a motel, one of the things that's happening right now is for you and I we're coming out of downtown where there is walkable distance for people to have access to a bathroom to have access to food, the laundromat. Where we're going right now is going to be where one of the DSS motels are, and there's no access. And so what does an individual do when they've left, and they've chosen the service. But now they're in an even tougher situation because they're alone. And so what we do in street outreach, and we have a team of now five agencies that come together to do this, we do motel outreach, we bring food to the motels, we knock on every door in the morning, and we say, Good morning, how are you doing today?’ People are like, ‘I'm fine.’ And we just say, ‘Hey, in my van, I have a lot of stuff here. I want to make sure that while you're here you have what you need. And so can I can I offer you anything,’ and you may find clients in that moment that you can help, or you're helping someone take that next step. So here's one of the first motels right here. And so again, there's one store right here where they can eat at. But who knows if they could totally afford it in that moment. And other than that, there's nowhere to go.”

Phillips says many clients also lack transportation to get back to the Department of Social Services. And if you miss your appointment, the services end.

“They just got sent to a motel in a place they have no idea where it was, or, you know, they didn't even get to pick,” Phillips said. “And now they need to figure out in a week how to get back to DSS. And so that's another reason why our role is so important is because we have to make sure that those services are followed through on in order for someone to access that support.”

Someone You Know

Human trafficking generates an estimated $150 billion worldwide per year, and it’s estimated that about 30% of traffickers globally are family members.

Phillips says a pimp or a human trafficker has no “look.”

“It's often someone you know,” Phillips said. “And so that the way they look, it could be very different. It's what they're asking of you. It's the language, it is the type of bond that they're creating, I call it trauma bonding, where you push someone away, and then you pull them right back. And that push and pull leads to being very disoriented. Not knowing what this type of relationship is. But there's a moment where you're experiencing love and a moment where you're experiencing extreme fear. And you don't know which person you're going to meet that day in that role. And that's part of like a traffickers tactic is to make sure that you don't know what's going to happen, because at all times, it could go good, and that's what's gonna keep you or it may go south, and you're still gonna stay, because maybe there's a little bit of money involved or something like that.”

Phillips says when drugs are involved it gets even more complicated, because the drugs are used as a hook and the trafficker is the supplier.

According to The National Coalition for the Homeless, about 40% of homeless people are alcohol dependent, and 30% are dependent on other drugs.

“And so that's one of my biggest concerns is when I find out that there is a mix of substance use and with human trafficking, because I can't provide that in the same way,” Phillips said. “And so we have to really do a harm reduction model to meet them where they're at, to say, ‘First, can we get you medical attention, to be safe and supported in an environment where you could walk away from this.’”

Transgender Youth

Phillips says gender identity has increasingly been a reason why children leave home.

“Recently this year, I believe I have had five transgender youth that have come through my program,” Phillips said. “And that's very new. And when we do talk about what are the reasons that may have led to you experiencing homelessness, often it was that experience of coming out within the home, not necessarily being seen or heard. And then feeling like, ‘This isn't a place where I feel safe to be who I am.’”

To The Parents

In 2019, there were almost 3,000 unaccompanied young people in New York state.

Phillips says after working to find so many unhoused and trafficked children every day, she has a message for parents.

“Be open to hearing what your child is saying,” Phillips said. “Because one of the things I know is that when a youth is yelling at me, that's the most important moment to actually listen. They are so invigorated, energetic and loud to communicate something to me. And so in the moments of parenting, where I think our parents may be like, ‘Please don't yell at me,’ that is the moment where I'm like, ‘This is your breakthrough.’ And if you can stay calm and hear what they're saying, they may be for the first time, fully expressing in a very loud way, what they need from you. And if you can’t provide it, the second thing I would say to a parent is: Be not afraid of people like ourselves who want to support you. Because there are a lot of reunification based services. And when you have that our goal is to say, ‘I may hold something that your daughter or son can't hear from you. And if you welcome me in not to be a part of your family, but to walk alongside your guys’ journey, you can still get that message across.’ And that's one of my favorite conversations to have with youth and parents, if I get the chance. You know, ‘Hey, if I told you what you're doing on your cell phone, may be inappropriate or unsafe, why are you listening to me when I know mom said that to you a day ago, and that's why you're here with me, because you were really upset, she said it to you.’ And so being able to let down that ego a little bit and say there are other people in this in this field in our community that can help raise your child, I truly think that it takes a village and a community to raise our children. And so if we do open ourselves up to all the different ways, I mean, that is why school for me is so powerful is because you know that those teachers there are also holding a part of parenting for your child. And so I love making sure that our youth are in school. And so just open up your lens a little bit to see if there is a struggle see if there's another person that could meet the need to build a team of support around your children or your child so that they don't feel like they have to go find a new family.”

Kelly Diane Galloway

For almost two months, one woman walked 902 miles to raise awareness about human trafficking. She stopped in Albany, New York before finishing the trek June 19th.

“The FreeTHEM Walk,” follows the route of The Underground Railroad from Lynchburg, Virginia to Buffalo, New York – because Kelly Diane Galloway says human trafficking is modern day slavery. By the time Galloway reached Albany, she had walked 607 miles.

“Human trafficking today still affects over 40.3 million people worldwide and it is a $150 billion dollar business,” Galloway said. “Slavery still exists. People are still being bought and sold for sex people are still being bought and sold for labor people are still being bought and sold for medical experimentation, people are still being bought and sold for entertainment.” 

Galloway says most people don’t starting caring about the problem until they’re affected personally.

“You hear the stories about those young girls who can never escape -- who feel like they can never escape what happened to them because there's videos and pictures of them floating all around the internet -- are you moved yet,” Galloway said. “Or are you gonna wait until what happens to your child or to your neighbor's child.”

“The FreeTHEM Walk” also included stops in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City. 

Galloway says she hopes her journey educates others about human trafficking and lends hope for victims of exploitation. 

“We're going to end in Buffalo, New York,” Galloway said. “And we're going to get there on June 19.”

Galloway says traffickers are really good at making young women feel that they are alone with no options.

“They're trained manipulators,” Galloway said. “And they try to make you feel like you're by yourself. And the truth is you're not you have a plethora you have an army of people willing to help you.”

Land Of The Free

According to the State Department’s 2021 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of people trafficked as governments across the world diverted resources toward the pandemic.

The report found that in the United States, landlords often forced their tenants to have sex with them when the tenant could not pay rent. And as schools shifted to remote learning during the pandemic, online recruitment and grooming increased as children spent more time online.

The State Department’s top recommendation for the last five years has been for law enforcement to investigate labor trafficking. The report says, “The government continued to not mandate human trafficking screening for all foreign national adults in immigration detention or custody. Officials prosecuted fewer cases for the third year in a row and secured convictions against fewer traffickers for the second year in a row. Advocates continued to report concerns that trafficking survivors were held in immigration detention, and survivors continued to be arrested for the unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit.”

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