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Youth Homelessness, Commercial Sexual Exploitation and the Realities of Survival

JUNE 5, 2017

Editor’s note: The OJJDP NMRC has partnered with MANY this year to highlight the importance and need for mentoring for children and youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC). This is the first in a series of posts featuring key insights about mentoring for young people impacted by commercial sexual exploitation. You can find a summary of information and a compilation of resources on this topic on the NMRC here.

Brea ran away from home many times to escape the physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather, but was always taken home by the police or family members she went to for help. When she left again at age 15, she was determined to make it on her own. Homeless, underage, and without a diploma or employment skills, Brea’s options for supporting herself were limited. A family friend offered to let her stay at his apartment, promising to take care of her and protect her from her stepfather. Brea says this is how she “fell into it.”

Survival sex, or the exchange of sex for food, shelter, or other necessities frequently involves an adult who provides care or support but later expects payment in the form of sex. A 2017 study of homeless youth, the largest ever to date, found that 15% of homeless youth had been trafficked for sex and 32% had been involved in the sex trade in some way. The exploitive nature of these relationships, combined with the abuse and neglect many homeless youth experience prior to leaving home, leads them to distrust relationships, particularly with adults.

Although survival sex is considered commercial sexual exploitation, youth like Brea are often stigmatized and criminalized based on the false assumption that they “chose this lifestyle.” Choice is defined as the “the right, power, or opportunity to choose.” Given the individual risk factors and harsh realities of many youth experiencing homelessness, their power and opportunities are severely limited. Unlike what we see on television, there is nothing glamorous about having to use the only thing you have, your body, to ensure that you can eat, shower, or sleep. In these desperate circumstances, youth must navigate situations by assessing “which is worse?” through a lens of survival, rather than having several positive opportunities from which to select.

Programs serving homeless youth understand these realities, but limited service capacity and safe housing options leave many youth without support. In recent years, mentoring has emerged as a promising intervention for youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and a number of programs serving homeless youth have found value in adding mentoring to their continuum of services. Wichita Children’s Home (WCH) is one such organization, and Jessica Muret, LSCSW, Program Manager and Trauma Therapist at WCH offers these insights.

Sexual exploitation is an all too common crisis experienced by runaway and homeless youth, and the development of our Youth Mentoring Program has allowed us to build a village of support around amazing youth survivors. So why mentoring? We have learned though the journey of walking alongside vulnerable youth who have experienced sexual exploitation, that healing too, is a journey of its own. We have seen that building safe, healthy relationships provides support to youth in healing, and mentoring is a tool to implement this support and model healthy connections. Our experience has shown us the empowerment having a mentor can bring to the healing journey. Mentoring helps to create a safe place for youth to process, grow, and make choices. These elements, these relationships, between youth and mentor, have depth, which honor the whole person.

A mentor may be the only consistent support for a young person who has, or is currently experiencing homelessness, commercial sexual exploitation, and instability. It is paramount that mentors and program staff consider whether the mentor is ready to make a serious and authentic commitment to a youth. Mentoring relationships that are unhealthy or end poorly have the potential to retraumatize youth and to reinforce distrust in adults. Youth may interpret these experiences as proof that “everyone leaves me,” “I’m not worthy of love and support,” or “I can’t trust or count on anyone.” In contrast, mentoring that is successful can be restorative for youth, by drawing out strengths, rebuilding self-esteem, and providing a model for healthy relationships.

Brea and other youth experiencing homelessness and commercial sexual exploitation continue to survive, despite insurmountable odds. Their resilience and grit inspire us to accept the walls they put up to protect themselves, and to be patient in allowing them to engage as they feel safe. Mentoring relationships have the power to open doors, but perhaps just as importantly for these youth, mentoring can illuminate possibility through the windows.

Resources for Mentoring Practitioners

Wichita State University Center for Combating Human Trafficking and MANY, in partnership with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, offer this toolkit, “Shining Light on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Toolkit to Build Understanding,” which provides information on a variety of topics related to human trafficking with a specific focus on mentoring for youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation. In this toolkit, you will find additional resources to facilitate further study and information about emerging research and best practices, along with implications for practice at the individual, program, and community levels.

If you are interested in training or technical assistance to support your mentoring program in serving youth impacted by commercial sexual exploitation, you can access this no-cost support through the OJJDP NMRC by submitting a request here, and email Kendan Elliott at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with any questions. You can find additional resources on the NMRC Key Topics page on Youth with Backgrounds of Involvement in Commercial Sex Activity, or on MANY’s website.

Kendan Elliott is a Technical Assistance Manager at MANY, leading the mentoring for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation project through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). He has 15 years of experience serving marginalized youth in a variety of capacities; including youth experiencing homelessness, human trafficking, and exploitation, LGBTQ youth and those involved in the foster care or juvenile justice systems. His experience in program development, management, and training are built on a foundation of positive youth development, emphasizing authentic collaboration with youth.

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