PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — With the NFL Draft just around the corner, Philadelphia could become a prime target for human sex traffickers. A new study released by the University of Pennsylvania reveals startling statistics that show that the city’s homeless youth population could be the most vulnerable.
Human Traffickers treat humans as possessions. They use threats, violence and deception to force people into involuntary labor or sex for money.
“Obviously I needed a home and I didn’t have much support at the time,” said “Kayla,” 20.
Obscuring her face for safety reasons, Kayla shared her story via Facetime, describing a life living on the streets of New York City and having to exchange sex for survival.
“I felt like that was the only thing I could do at that age,” she said. “I was only 17.”
Eventually, Kayla was exploited by a pimp and spent nearly 18 months on the streets. She says the pain of selling herself was something she tried to ignore.
“Nobody wants to degrade themselves just for basic needs,” she said.
Kayla’s story is similar to the 300 homeless youth from three cities, including Philadelphia, interviewed for a new study undertaken by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research as of an initiative by Covenant House International.
The study, which is still in its preliminary stages, found that of the homeless youth interviewed:
– 1 in 5 of the youth were victims of sex trafficking
– 14% exchanged sex to pay for basic needs
– 95% had a history of child abuse, with nearly 50% reporting sex abuse
– 58% of those trafficked did not have a caring adult in their loves
– 67% percent of those trafficked did not graduate from high school
“What they really needed is a caring adult, a caring parent,” said Dan Keglia, senior researcher at the Penn Field Center.
“If there isn’t a safe place for a young person to stay, a human trafficker will be there waiting,” said John Ducoff, Executive Director, Covenant House Pennsylvania. The organization serves homeless youth, many of whom have been targets. Some were even victims exploited on sites like Backpage.com.
“They were forced to sell themselves for sex,” he said, “and once you bring them in — they are traumatized.”
With the NFL Draft headed to Philadelphia, Covenant House Pennsylvania, which chairs the city’s task force on Human Trafficking, knows youth on the streets are especially vulnerable.
“There are traffickers who will target these events and bring people to exploit and to sell,” said Ducoff, who notes that Covenant House hit the streets to raise awareness prior to several major events, including the visit by Pope Francis and the Democratic National Convention.
“We work with local law enforcement, we go to hotels training front desk clerks on what human trafficking looks like,” he said.
In February 2014, the FBI busted a child sex trafficking ring, rescuing more than 16 juveniles. The sting resulted in the arrest of more than 45 pimps and their associates, some of whom, according to the FBI, traveled to New Jersey from other states specifically for the purpose of prostituting women and children at the Super Bowl.
Ducoff says they’ll be putting up fliers with Human Trafficking hotline numbers so that potential targets, those working in places central to such unsavory activity, as well as the general public is aware that human trafficking is alive and well in Philadelphia.
“We know who these kids are,” said Ducoff, “and you can see it.”
Some signs of potential trafficking include a young person who is unable to leave on their own, has no idea and/or is being watched by a much older adult who is not a parent.
Kayla, who is now living on her own thanks to Covenant House, says she hopes other youth, as well as women on the streets know that there is hope.
“Just because somebody is offering you a place to stay doesn’t mean you have to take it,” she said, “there are resources.”
The full study will be released in June.