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More than Four Walls: The Anti-Trafficking Housing Landscape and the Reality of Finding Shelter

It’s Saturday evening at the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and we’ve had non-stop calls since mid-afternoon. I know there are people on hold waiting to be helped, so I type my notes from my last call as quickly as possible, while not skipping any details. I put on my phone’s headset, take a breath, and take the next call in the queue.

The voice on the other line is quiet and nervous. She tells me she’s 30 and just escaped a situation where her boss forced her to work 16 hours per day cleaning the house without pay, enough food, or ever being allowed to go outside. She doesn’t want to go back to that situation and is hoping I can help her find somewhere safe to stay. I’m awed at her bravery – and tell her so. I promise her I will do my best to help. She says she doesn’t want to call the police because her boss told her the police will deport her. Since her boss made her outstay her visa, that threat is very real. I assure her I’ll only do what she’s comfortable with, and we don’t have to involve the police. ‘Do you know where you are?’ I ask. ‘A bus station in Houston.’

I breathe a sigh of relief when she says Houston. It’s a big city and she identifies as female. I open my database to see who I can call for emergency shelter. I check the time – 9 PM on a Saturday. This might be rough since some programs only take new clients during business hours. I put the survivor on hold and call one of the local shelters. The advocate on the other end tells me that yes, they do have a bed available for tonight, and they will be able to speak to the survivor to coordinate. I smile and complete the transfer. Sometimes it works out perfectly.” – National Human Trafficking Hotline Advocate

Of the more than 3,000 (and growing) social and legal service providers that are part of the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s referral network, about 36% provide some form of housing to survivors of human trafficking and just over 900 of those offer emergency shelter for crisis situations. Most offer emergency shelter options to cis-female survivors and are concentrated near large cities, leaving gaps in some rural areas. Despite the anti-trafficking community’s great strides to create a safety net for survivors, there are still many systematic and inadvertent barriers that block survivors from accessing the critical housing they need.

Individual housing services available to human trafficking survivors in the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s internal referral directory.

“While I write my notes, I think back to a case that wasn’t so easy. A 19 year old survivor was leaving a sex trafficking situation when she texted the National Hotline. She told me she was in a wheelchair and didn’t want to call because she was Deaf. She talked about her service dog, Copper, and how he keeps her strong. Unfortunately, all I could think about is how difficult it is to find a shelter that allows dogs – even when they’re service animals. A fellow advocate and I called around to local shelters near her. The first four shelters we called said no to the dog immediately. I finally spoke to someone who understood that he’s a service pup. My heart sank immediately when she told me the shelter only had top bunk beds available. They wouldn’t be able to open up an accessible bunk for several days. Not an option for this survivor. I told the survivor what happened, but she never texted back – probably due to frustration. I understood; closed doors hurt.” – National Human Trafficking Hotline Advocate

Emergency shelter is the most requested referral survivors seek when reaching out to the National Hotline in crisis situations. All too often, the need for housing and emergency shelter far exceeds the options available. This is amplified when some housing systems haven’t put viable options in place for people with disabilities or who have service animals. Moreover, organizations equipped to serve people with disabilities or special needs may not be experienced with trauma or human trafficking – and vice versa.

“I shake my head and move to take another call. After a bit of static, I make out a man’s voice. He tells me he’s being forced to work on a ranch in Ideal, South Dakota, and wants to escape. He’s looking for a safe place to go and does not want to involve law enforcement. I rub my temples with one hand and check the time – 10:30 PM.  I pull up my database again and increase my radius to 150 miles. There’s not a single shelter that serves male trafficking survivors. Looks like Ideal, South Dakota isn’t so ideal. I explain these limitations to the survivor and together we develop a plan to keep him safe – he’s going to spend tonight at the ranch, but tomorrow he might be able to catch a ride with a friend driving through town. He’s grateful for any help at all and thanks me. I just wish there were options available to him.” – National Human Trafficking Hotline Advocate

While there have been extraordinary efforts made across the country to fill gaps in services to trafficking survivors, shelters are most often only available to cis-female survivors of sex trafficking. That’s the common perception of who a trafficking survivor is. The reality is that trafficking can happen to any person regardless of gender, in any part of the world – even Small Town, USA. While most shelters will serve cis-gender female survivors, those that serve cis-gender male, transgender, or gender non-binary folks are hundreds fewer. When you eliminate options only available to victims who experienced sexual or domestic violence (which is not the case in many labor trafficking situations), the provider landscape is more desert than oasis.

It’s tough that the best option we have sometimes is to make a plan with the survivor to mitigate safety risks until a shelter bed opens or until there are other options available. But I know it’s getting better. This year, 76 new shelter and housing options were added to the National Hotline’s network – with more than two-thirds offering emergency shelter to all survivors regardless of gender. Some shelters that only served female domestic violence victims a few years ago have evolved and widened their doors to now serve all survivors of human trafficking. When funding or policies limit shelters’ ability to serve certain populations, many shelters find creative options through hotels, motels, or other safe houses.

Shelter is not just four walls and a roof – it’s an embodiment of hope to survivors. It means they can be secure and leave a terrible situation, while knowing that they are believed and cared for.

Learn more about how housing systems can disrupt and prevent human trafficking. If you are a human trafficking service provider apply here to have your program added to our referral network. Stay informed! If you’d like to help make an impact on the lives of human trafficking victims and survivors join our Grassroots Network.

Note: The locations and identifying details of the cases described have been changed to protect the privacy of callers and potential victims.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.