How unstable housing leads to sex exploitation

By Sarah Wedeking
Trigger warning: Mentions of trauma and sex trafficking

When most people think of sex trafficking, they probably think of the white van in the dark of night. What they don’t think about are the victims who are vulnerable on the streets. The ones who have no choice but to exploit themselves for the basic human need for food, water, and one of the more pressing needs in the Lehigh Valley, housing. 

“The intersection that we see with being unsheltered and trafficking is sexual exploitation,” said Catharine Kessack executive director of VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking). “So women have no other choice but to exploit themselves for survival.”

Sex trafficking, or sexual exploitation, is not always the white van and an abduction like the media portrays it. “It’s not always the drama that you see on TV, sometimes it’s just as simple as you thought you were coming here to get a good job. You started off at a job, things look right. And then all of a sudden things change,” said Darnell Davis, co-founder of Aspire to Autonomy, an organization that connects trafficking victims with services so they can live independently. 

For example, a boyfriend or a loved one might need money and pressure the victim into sleeping with the landlord. Sometimes it’s someone who needs $100 dollars a day and sees no other option. 

“Over time, the victim becomes very attached,” adds Kessack, “and typically will fall in love with this pimp or trafficker, and then a trauma bond is formed.”A trauma bond is a type of attachment the abused will form for their abuser. 

Typically, traffickers will turn to those who are either in marginalized populations or have some sort of vulnerability. According to Bloom for Women, an organization that provides emergency shelter to sex trafficking survivors, 95% of sex trafficking victims were women at their shelter.

“Women who have been exploited or trafficked, those vulnerabilities are preyed on,” Kessack said. “One of those vulnerabilities is having unstable housing. Women have no other choice but to exploit themselves for survival.”

The current housing crisis in Allentown has affected many facets of the city, from the increased rent burden to troubles with local businesses. However, it has also created a population of  “hidden homeless.” These are the ones more susceptible to sex trafficking or exploitation. 

Over 64% of survivors reported that the lack of affordable housing became a barrier when trying to escape their trafficking situation, according to Polaris, a non-profit organization fighting to end sex trafficking. 

“We’re seeing that the overarching exploitation of individuals in need is increased because of the unstable housing market,” Davis said. 

Unstable housing is not the only vulnerability. After sex exploitation, many begin to turn to substance abuse. “There’s that feeling of despair, like there’s no way out,” Darnell explained. “Some people do turn to substances.” 

“Anybody is at risk,” Kessack said. Youth, LGBT, and people of color are among the highest at risk of sexual exploitation. 

“I think the biggest thing is that people aren’t aware that it’s happening here in the Lehigh Valley,” Lorna Clause, director of programs for Bloom for Women said. 

Sex trafficking can happen in any place. There were several instances reported of sexual exploitation in shelters. “There was grooming happening,” Kessack reported. 

Davis explained one of the situations: a person from a shelter offered their home to the victim. After a while, they wanted sex as payment. 

“The community needs to understand that many of these individuals don’t have the tools necessary to get a job,” Kessack said. These tools include a license or birth certificate and a social security card; obtaining those documents is a very long process, according to Kessack. 

Complex trauma – from P.T.S.D to other mental health issues also adds to these challenges. “I can safely say, unfortunately, everyone we have has some form of trauma,” Clause said, referring to their treatment programs. “A lot of them have mental health needs,” Clause said. “We don’t have enough resources in the Lehigh Valley to treat mental health.”

There are organizations that aim to help with anything a survivor may need. VAST is one such organization. Kessack likes to term the organization as a “connector of resources.” 

“We educate our community, we do advocacy work, and then we provide aftercare,” Kessack said. A survivor might reach out to VAST to have a support system during a trial, or to be connected to other resources for housing, food, or more. 

Aspire to Autonomy is similar. “Aspire is a human service organization that supports individuals who are currently traveling or at high risk of being trafficked or exploited,” Davis said. They currently have a safe house for anyone who needs it as well as community intervention services. 

“We provide outreach, case management, and therapy services, trauma-informed therapy service,” Davis said. The goal is to help survivors back up on their feet, to walk a path to autonomy. 

Bloom for Women offers long-term housing (about 2 years) for survivors to recover. Afterward, they have transitional housing to encourage more autonomy. 

CEO of Bloom for Women Carol Andersen said, “Bloom for Women has served more than 175 women survivors since first opening their doors in 2014 and now operates 4 homes in the Lehigh Valley.”  

Andersen also shared, “We purchased our first home in Allentown in June and plan to open that program for pregnant survivors by the end of 2022.” 

Over the past few years, the organization has had an 80% success rate with transitional housing. 

So is there a solution? For a start, we can work to create more affordable and stable housing. Most survivors, or people still in their trafficking situation, just want a home. 

Forty percent of survivors in Polaris’s survey reported seeking shelter at some point during their trafficking. To make sure people have stable, affordable housing is one solution to this problem. 

“We’re seeing an uptick in the fact that you have people who are barely employed, right or underemployed, are not employed at all seeking support, and have the support,” Davis said. But the problem is that they have support, but not enough to afford stable housing because of how expensive the housing market has become. 

“It’s just important that people are talking about [this issue],” Clause said. 

For more immediate help or emergency situations, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888.

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