The fourth-largest city in the United States is an ‘ideal’ location
by Amanda Williams
Imagine being subjected to abuse, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor. Imagine being completely alone, with only your trafficker or “pimp” to dictate every minute of your daily life. Imagine being forced to work endless hours for little or nothing, under the threat of having your life (or those of your loved ones) ended. You feel trapped. Afraid. Disempowered. Cheated. Lost. What you’re imagining is human trafficking, and it is happening in our community, whether we see it or not.
According to United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT), a nonprofit Houston organization working to combat the epidemic locally, traffickers control their victims by offering fraudulent promises of employment, education, or a better life. Some may also use physical abuse and/or rape as methods of control.
Not to be confused with consensual-sex-trade work, in which sex workers control the terms of their employment, the global sex trafficking trade is built around exploitation and lack of control. It is among the three largest criminal industries, following firearms and drugs. Its prevalence in the United States is shocking, to say the least.
Though sex trafficking is often the most visible form of human trafficking, there are many different kinds of trafficking happening in our city. Trafficking may come in the form of agricultural work, in restaurant and nail salon businesses, domestic servitude, or within traveling sales crews. Maria Trujillo, the executive director of UAHT, states, “Human trafficking is a very hidden crime. While Houston is known for being a hub for human trafficking, every city has some level of human trafficking.”
What is unique about Houston is its “ideal” location, with three interstate highway corridors and major sea and air ports bringing a lot of domestic and international traffic through the city. Trujillo states, “Houston is a hub for the distribution of all kinds of commodities and goods. Unfortunately, in the case of human trafficking, we are seeing actual human beings treated as cargo.”
Domestic servitude is a growing form of human trafficking that many Houstonians don’t know about. Trujillo explains, “Domestic servitude cases are under-represented in the media. It typically occurs in a person’s home, usually a very expensive home, and it can be a very private and raw form of human trafficking.”
Victims of domestic servitude are typically forced to assume the role of a family maid or nanny, and often face abuses such as confiscation of documentation, withholding of pay, confinement, isolation, threat of deportation if they are an undocumented immigrant, and/or physical or sexual assault. The trafficker might be the head of the household, or the entire family could contribute to the person’s oppression.
Trujillo explains that undocumented immigrants are extremely vulnerable to false promises of a better life as they come to the United States in hopes of finding legitimate employment to support their families back home.
We also see undocumented immigrants who become indebted to traffickers (known as “coyotes”) who bring them across the border illegally. “Immigrants who may owe their traffickers money can be forced to work off their debt in a variety of degrading ways. In many cases, there’s no end in sight, and the debt just keeps growing,” Trujillo says.
In addition to Houston’s undocumented populations, LGBTQ Houstonians are also disproportionally affected by human trafficking—particularly LGBTQ youth.
Allison Vogt, the former project manager of the Human Trafficking Outreach Program at The Montrose Center, explains that they began the program in 2011 after learning about the large number of at-risk or currently trafficked LGBTQ teenagers in the Houston area. She states, “A lot of the teens we found were participating in what started as ‘survival sex’ but later turned into a situation where an abuser would take advantage of them and attempt to get them to start working for them on the streets. They would become victims of human trafficking.”
Survival sex, as Vogt explains, occurs when someone performs sexual acts in exchange for basic needs such as food, water, shelter, or clothing. Vogt states that many of the LGBTQ teens they encountered through their program had resorted to survival sex after being kicked out of their homes for being gay. “Within 24 to 48 hours of these teens going into the streets, 90 percent of them will be met by a pimp who will reach out to them in a conniving way,” she says.
Traffickers are known to prey on routinely victimized youth, particularly ones who are more likely to have low self-esteem and higher rates of mental health problems. Because the LGBTQ community can face harsh discrimination that contributes to mental health and self-esteem issues, they tend to be disproportionately vulnerable to sex trafficking.
According to the Center for American Progress, young men who have sex with men are more likely to be forced into sex trafficking than any other youth population. Moreover, a Canadian research journal showed that homeless LGBTQ youth were three times more likely to participate in survival sex, as compared to their homeless non-LGBTQ counterparts.
Beyond being kicked out of their homes, many LGBTQ teens willfully leave home on their own to flee from dangerous or abusive situations. According to a report from Children at Risk, it is estimated that of the 450,000 children who run away from home each year, one in three will be lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home. The average age of entry is 12 or 13 years old.
Although The Montrose Center no longer receives sufficient funding for their Human Trafficking Outreach Program, they have two outreach workers operating under their Homeless Youth Outreach Department who continue to identify LGBTQ teens who are being trafficked. The workers provide condoms with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline number on the wrappers as a way to inconspicuously refer them to the help they need.
Despite outreach to promote safe sex and other resources, it comes as no surprise that trafficked people are extremely vulnerable to serious health risks, including STDs and HIV.
At Legacy Community Health Services, Dr. Natalie Vanek specializes in LGBTQ care. Though the majority of her clients who are victims of human trafficking are young Latina and Asian women, she has seen an increasing number of black, gay, HIV-positive men who have been kicked out of their homes for their sexual orientation and/or their HIV status, and ultimately become victims of human trafficking. “They’ve told me that they were kicked out because their families didn’t want them to expose other children in the house to HIV,” says Dr. Vanek. This strongly illustrates how HIV stigma and ignorance can contribute to a breakdown in family and social support.
The majority Dr. Vanek’s human trafficking patients disclose their experiences to her when they come in for Post-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). PEP must be started immediately after possible exposure to HIV in order to prevent infection.
Dr. Vanek also hears from trans and cisgender women of all ethnicities seeking PEP, especially around peak times like holiday weekends or when big sporting events occur in Houston. “Trans people are extremely vulnerable to violence of all kinds,” Dr. Vanek explains. “Many times, the bloodier cases will go to Memorial Hermann, and because of our relationship with them, they will refer victims to us for PEP and other services. It is crucial that they get care.”
Legacy is committed to getting clients into sustained primary care, and the health center also offers a trained team of social workers, behavioral health services, and support groups that accommodate LGBT-specific needs.
While Houston is home to many diverse populations, we must not ignore what is happening to some of our most vulnerable community members. In addition to the outreach work being done by Legacy and other agencies, we as a community must all be invested in ending this horrible human-rights disaster.
During September (which is Houston’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month), Houstonians should learn about human trafficking, raise awareness, and get more involved. The website houstonrr.org is a good place to learn more and find out how you can take action.
If you (or someone you suspect) is a victim of human trafficking, please contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.
Amanda Williams is the public affairs field specialist at Legacy Community Health Services and is a member of the City of Houston’s Task Force on Human Trafficking. She has a master’s degree in social work with a political specialization. You can find her on Twitter @fullfrontalfem.