Human trafficking is an issue that occurs everywhere in the world and affects all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or class. The most common types are forced labor and sex trafficking, although there are many other types. Human traffickers often use violence, intimidation, blackmail, and extortion to dominate and control their victims. The most vulnerable populations are immigrants, runaways, members of the LGBTQ community, children, and the homeless population: the group that this research paper will focus on. In order to analyze human traffickings effect on the homeless population, it is important to understand and research why human traffickers target the homeless population in the first place, the tactics they use to manipulate and entrap their victims, and the various sociological concepts such as social stratification, deviance, and dehumanization that apply to the issue. This paper will take a look at the data and effects of human trafficking on the homeless population in Colorado, but will also include a cross-cultural comparison for the purpose of understanding the differences and similarities between places and the role of culture. To truly understand the effects of human trafficking on the homeless, it is important to look at the issue from all perspectives, recognize personal assumptions, and analyze the global reach that this issue has.

Research Findings:

Before analyzing human trafficking in Colorado, it is important to understand global data for human trafficking as a whole. The number of people who are victims of modern-day slavery (otherwise known as human trafficking) is quite staggering: “An estimated 40.3 million people were victims of modern-day slavery in 2016. In other words, on any given day in 2016, there were likely to be more than 40 million men, women, and children who were being forced to work against their will under threat or were living in a forced marriage that they had not agreed to.” These numbers include 25 million people in forced labor and 15 million people in forced marriage. Of these 40 million victims, women and girls accounted for 71 percent. One in four victims of modern-day slavery were children. Debt bondage also accounted for half of all victims of forced labor (International Labor Organization, 2016). The percentage

of homeless people who are victims of human trafficking is also very high. Two hundred and seventy homeless youth were interviewed by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Of the youth interviewed, 20% had been victims of human trafficking. That means at least 1 out of 5 homeless youth had been affected by human trafficking. Additionally, 17% had been victims of sex trafficking and 6% were victims of forced labor. An additional 14% engaged in “survival sex” (a form of prostitution brought about by desperate need of food, shelter, or illicit substances) to ensure their access to basic goods. A grand total of 36% of the homeless youth interviewed reported engaging in a commercial sex act at some point (Wolfe, 2018).

Children are often targeted for sex trafficking due to traffickers seeing them as “easy targets”. These traffickers often use isolation tactics to create a hopeless environment for the child in order to instill a sense of cooperation equals survival, “It is common for traffickers to isolate victims by moving them far away from friends and family, altering their physical appearances, or continuously moving them to new locations. Victims are heavily conditioned to remain loyal to the trafficker and to distrust law enforcement.” (Department of Justice, 2020). As homeless/unaccompanied youth are often the target of human traffickers, it is therefore important to understand just how many minors are without parental support and are without housing. In 2018, 2,034 unaccompanied students (minors without guardians) and 593 unaccompanied young adults between 18-24 years of age were homeless in Colorado (HUD, 2020). As the homeless population is exposed to the harsh winters present in Colorado, desperation sets in. Furthermore, camping bans like the one Denver passed in 2012 force individuals to seek accommodation for housing elsewhere, “These circumstances push individuals experiencing homelessness to make choices they may not otherwise make. Some people may feel forced to agree to a ride offered by an ill-intentioned stranger, accept a job opportunity that’s too good to be true, or even exchange sex for something necessary to survive- like a place to sleep for the night.” (Combat Human Trafficking, n.d). The statistics of youth who trade sexual favors for items such as food, shelter, money, or even drugs is alarming: About 36% had traded sex for money, a place to spend the night, food, protection, or drugs.

“Most of the youth who reported trading sex for money did so only after they became homeless.” (Health & Human, 2016).

Another group within the homeless community disproportionately affected by human trafficking is the LGTBQ community. Due to the high rates of homelessness of LGBTQ youth, they have a vastly increased risk of being trafficked. According to one study of homeless youth, youth who identified as LGBTQ made up a total of 39% of those who were being trafficked. Within the youth homeless community that identified as transgender, 60% had reported sex trafficking (Wolfe, 2018). To properly examine why these numbers are so high for the LGBTQ community specifically, it must be examined why so many LGBTQ youths end up homeless in the first place. Approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, which is far greater than the 7% they make up in the general population (Polaris, 2019). The reasons these youth are homeless vary, but all have to do with discrimination and problems with acceptance: “These youth may face homelessness for reasons connected to their identities, such as family rejection, prior abuse or neglect, bullying in school, or social discrimination and marginalization.” (Polaris, 2019) This lack of social support and shelter makes them at risk for traffickers to exploit their vulnerabilities and force them into labor or sex trafficking.

Although understanding the statistics on vulnerable groups within the homeless community that are trafficked is useful, it is also important to understand the various tactics used by human traffickers to lure their victims and maintain control and coerce them. Forced addiction is very common and can be a means of reducing a victim’s ability to fight back or creating a demand for the drug that can only be met by the trafficker. A study on the intersection of human trafficking and addiction found that “Successfully prosecuted cases have proven that the role of substance use disorder in human trafficking is powerful and pervasive; addiction can increase a person’s vulnerability to being trafficked, can be initiated and manipulated by the trafficker as a means of coercion and control, and can be used by the victim/survivor as a means of coping with the physical and psychological traumas of being trafficked both during captivity and after exiting the trafficking situation.” (Dept. of State, 2020). Technology is also used very frequently in sex trafficking. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has seen a massive increase in cases in which youth are threatened and coerced into producing sexual material in a crime known as “sextortion”. In sextortion, a victim is coerced into producing a sexually explicit image by use of compensation, flirtation or flattery, lies, and other methods. Once the victim sends the image, the trafficker will then blackmail them by threatening to release the content to the public or their family unless the victim continues to produce sexual content (FBI, n.d). Although this form of trafficking isn’t “physical” in the way the other forms of trafficking take place, the victim is still being controlled and blackmailed online via an attacker. Traffickers also utilize physical and psychological abuse to maintain control over their victims and create utterly hopeless situations filled with isolation. Physical abuse is common especially in sex trafficking as victims are often brutalized, sexually abused, and raped. Another way victims are physically abused by traffickers is they are deprived of the necessities of survival: food, water, shelter, and sleep. Psychological abuse can occur in a multitude of ways, including deprivation, threats, and isolation from the world and their communities. Victims are often forced into trafficking due to threats of violence or murder of them or their family members if they do not cooperate. Traffickers also restrict their victim’s freedom of movement, keeping them in isolation and preventing contact with the outside world (ACLU, n.d).

Sociological Concepts:

Deviance is defined as “a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law.” (Griffiths 2017). Deviance ranges from minor acts such as not paying tips or as major as crimes such as robbery. Deviance doesn’t necessarily denote immoral behavior, but merely behavior that is in violation of the norm. To manage deviance, social control is needed. Social control takes the form of sanctions. A positive sanction would be a reward for conforming to the norm while a negative sanction would be a punishment for violating a norm. Deviance can be applied to human trafficking’s effects on the homeless population in numerous ways. For example, homeless LGBTQ youth make up 39% of those being trafficked (Wolfe, 2018). Homeless LGBTQ youth also make up approximately 40% of the homeless population (Polaris 2019). This is mainly due to issues ranging from their family’s lack of acceptance towards their sexuality, bullying, abuse, and social discrimination which makes these youth face tremendous rates of homelessness. These youth deviate from both their family’s and their community’s norms and are forced out of their homes or feel compelled to leave. This is the social control aspect that comes into play. Due to being outside of their family’s norms for sexuality, these youth are imposed with a negative sanction, which is punishment for violating any norm. While in exile from their communities and social support, LGBTQ youth face the risks of being homeless as well as being targeted by human traffickers, who can be complete strangers or friends, family, or intimate partners. Human traffickers also utilize the concept of positive and negative sanctions. As a reward for conforming to the norms of the traffickers, victims evade threats of violence or murder, albeit their trafficking often continues and the victim must maintain this compliance to ensure their own survival. Another common positive sanction is the trafficker giving drugs to the victim, which feeds either an already existing addiction or an addicting that had been forcibly applied to the victim by the trafficker to ensure their control (The Intersection of Human Trafficking and Addiction, 2020). Negative sanctions can include physical and psychological violence and intimidation. This can include anything from the deprivation of food, water, and shelter to violent acts such as rape, sexual abuse, or brutalization (ACLU, n.d).

The sociological theoretical perspectives can also be applied to the issue of human trafficking within the homeless population. The three theoretical perspectives are structural-functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Structural-functionalism sees society as structures that work together to meet the needs of that society (Griffiths 2017). This is a macro-level theory that can be applied to the entire issue of human trafficking within the homeless community. Just as economic problems and social norms feed into the ever-growing homeless population, that structure also works with the criminal elements of our society, i.e human trafficking. These two structures maintain each other’s needs and wants and provide illegal sex, labor, and drugs. Another way to analyze the issue is social conflict theory, which looks at society as a constant battle over resources and control between unequal classes and groups (Griffiths 2017). As this is another macro-level theory, it can be used to understand how the inequalities between minorities and the majority have led to unequal rates of human trafficking amongst individuals of different identities. Specifically, it can be used as a critical analysis of why homeless LGBTQ youth make up 40% of the homeless youth population despite LGBTQ only comprising 7% of the population total (Polaris, 2019). These rates are explained by norms held by specific individuals and families discriminating against or even kicking out members of the LGBTQ community. This represents the conflict between different groups of people over the rules and norms of society. The final way to analyze human trafficking’s effect on the homeless population is symbolic interactionism, the theoretical perspective that focuses on interactions between individuals and the exchange of symbols as a way of shaping society (Griffiths 2017). For this, the relationship between the trafficker and their victim can be analyzed. A trafficker will use physical and psychological threats to make a victim comply. Over time, a victim will learn to comply with the trafficker through learned behavior and will start to form a new society with them, as many of the victims have been socially isolated from their original communities as a method of control (ACLU, n.d).

Social stratification is a way of describing a system of social standing which occurs in society. Social stratification categorizes people due to factors such as wealth income, ethnicity, gender, education, and power (Griffiths 2017). The relationship between pimps or human traffickers, their victims and slaves, and the users of either labor or sex trafficking can be described using social stratification. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the victims, who have been stripped of all rights and protections and forced to work within a human trafficking organization to prevent harm or death to themselves or loved ones or to comply with blackmail. In the middle are the buyers, who can use the victims for forced labor or sexual interactions as long as they give money or provide whatever compensation the pimp or human trafficker desires. And at the top lies the human trafficker, who considers the victim their property and has complete control over all aspects of their lives. The trafficker provides their victims as resources to others in order to further their own financial gain (International Labor Organization, 2016).
Utilize Context:

In order to reduce the unequal effects of homelessness and human trafficking on certain groups within society, it is vital that it is recognized that this inequality exists in the first play. Although there are already organizations that help minority groups protect themselves against human traffickers and prove shelter and food to the homeless which reduces their need for survival sex for necessities (Combat Human Trafficking, n.d), efforts must be expanded in order to reach all members of the homeless community and bring human trafficking rates down. Another way of helping reduce human trafficking rates within the homeless population in Colorado would be providing a home for the many unaccompanied minors who live in the streets. Specifically, 2,034 unaccompanied students (minors without guardians) and 593 unaccompanied young adults between 18-24 years of age were homeless in Colorado (HUD, 2020). As human traffickers often target children and young adults who are currently living without support structures (Department of Justice, 2020). The usage and cooperation between law enforcement agencies is also vital to these children being found and protected from traffickers, “Child sex trafficking investigations present unique challenges to law enforcement and require a robust multijurisdictional response, with multiple agencies playing a critical role in ensuring the protection of victims and effective prosecution of offenders.” (Department of Justice, 2020).

Power Structures & Worldviews:

While researching human trafficking in Colorado, all elements of forced labor and sex trafficking structures were strictly illegal and are prosecuted by the United States government and the Department of Justice. Although the problem of human trafficking within the United States remains a massive issue, other governments such as the People’s Republic of China are indicated as being collaborative in forced labor and human trafficking structures within their country. For example, the People’s Republic of China uses repressed minorities and coerces them into forced labor “However, during the reporting period there was a government policy or pattern of widespread forced labor, including through the continued mass arbitrary detention of more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang).” (Human Trafficking in China, 2020). Outside of their country, nationals of the People’s Republic of China exploit local labor for projects within the Belt and Road Initiative, “Chinese nationals reportedly suffered forced labor in several countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe hosting Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, within which PRC authorities exercised insufficient oversight of relevant recruitment channels, contracts, and labor conditions, and PRC diplomatic services routinely failed to identify or assist those exploited.” (Human Trafficking in China, 2020).


A common assumption that is made about human trafficking is that it really only exists in other countries where people may enjoy fewer rights and freedoms. But, the facts don’t support that assumption. In fact, human trafficking is a worldwide problem that has roots in every country in the world. People also often assume that all human trafficking involves sex. But, some human trafficking is done in order to provide labor. Worldwide, it is believed that labor trafficking is more common than sex trafficking (Polaris Project 2021). Because of these assumptions, people often do not see the correlation between vulnerable populations, like the homeless, in the problem of human trafficking. But, in reality, the more vulnerable individuals on our streets who do not have people to check in on them regularly, the easier it is for human traffickers to use, abuse, and coerce this particular population. When additional vulnerabilities, such as substance addiction or mental health problems are added to the equation, this population becomes easy targets for both sex and labor trafficking.

Self Awareness:

Before writing this paper, I had a general awareness of the human trafficking problem in the world and was concerned about it. This fueled me to want to learn more about the problem and what we can do to help to solve it. I became more aware of the link between our vulnerable homeless populations and the targeting of traffickers through research and educating myself about the issue. I think that our general population has heard about human trafficking, but often links it to places far away and assumes that this is not a real problem in the United States or even here in our hometown. But, after looking into it, I discovered that it really is a legitimate problem here and everywhere in our world. I think that, if given the information, people would be very concerned about this problem and work towards some solutions, both on a political and personal level. By finding ways to protect our most vulnerable populations from this issue, many lives can be saved. The lives of trafficked individuals, whether for sex or labor, are often filled with horrors and abuses that the average person simply cannot relate to. I believe that if we share those stories and start in our own towns to prevent trafficking, we can make a real difference with this problem.


Analyzing the effects of human trafficking on the homeless community in Colorado provides insight into how certain minorities are unequally affected by both human trafficking and homelessness as well as gives insight into ways to solve these problems and correct the issue that is human trafficking. By understanding the reasons these inequalities exist and why these communities are targeted as well as why vulnerable populations are considered vulnerable in the first place, we gain a deeper understanding of the issue as a whole as well as see new ways to deal with the problem.



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