By Albert H. Fulcher
San Diego County is in the top 13 list nationwide for high intensity sex trafficking. The selling and buying of human beings for sexual exploitation is the second largest criminal industry in the county, after the selling of drugs and before the selling of illegal arms.
Proven through studies and research, nearly 40% of youths that are being served by any homeless youth service provider identify as LGBTQ, said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.
“When you look at the reasons that they [youth] became homeless, over 50% relate to being thrown out, not accepted by their family, and in there is a large factor of being abused at home,” Stephan said. “There is a very strong connection that when they do leave [home], they end up at close to 50% reported as being sexually exploited. Being LGBTQ is a big vulnerability factor for homelessness sadly, and a huge vulnerability factor to becoming sexually exploited.”
For nearly five years, the North County LGBTQ Resource Center worked with North County Lifeline, a youth services organization through a federal grant specifically designated for the most vulnerable populations that can be exposed to possible sex trafficking, said The Center’s Executive Director Max Disposti.
“We learned how collaboration with people working on the streets and destigmatizing human trafficking would be more effective than just chasing the bad guys,” Disposti said. “In the end, in catching the bad guys, the victims were not supported, became traumatized and there were no resources for them. The community that were victims, both men and women, became even more criminalized and feared to come forward against this organized crime.”
Disposti said there is no black-and-white solution to the sex trafficking of youth and in the past, programs focused mostly on punishment. He said in many cases, these “bad guys” are creating environments that are attractive to people living on the streets.
“Sometimes they offer you a job, a house and actually provide a kind of family that these youths have never had before,” Disposti said. “It became difficult for the police departments to know who a trafficker was and who wasn’t. It is not the typical definition of a trafficker who kidnaps a kid and then forces them to work on the streets. It wasn’t that black and white.”
Stephan agreed with that sentiment and said the images people see when they think of sex trafficking are like scenes out of the movie “Taken,” where somebody is kidnapped by an international sex trafficking ring, put in a car, transported and chained up.
“But the reality is that sex trafficking lies in vulnerability,” Stephan said. “One of the most critical vulnerabilities is homeless youth, [who] are running away, are placed in a position where they have to trade the only commodity they have control over, or they think they have control over, and that’s their bodies. For food, shelter, money, just to survive. It happens through a lot of subtle manipulations and deception more than it happens through direct force.”
Disposti said in many cases these victims have just graduated from foster care, with little to no knowledge or experience of boundaries and relationships.
“So, all of a sudden, there is someone there seemingly trying to help them. They range from ages 16-24 and they use them, farm them and while doing this, become their best friend,” Disposti said. “So, to the victim, they are creating a family and friendship, even when they are asked to work for them. It’s complicated. Our role is to demystify that and educate them about sex trafficking because they don’t know about it.
“There is so much stigma about men in trafficking,” Disposti continued. “Some are LGBTQ, some are straight, and organized crime has much more leverage against them because they don’t want to come out. So, they have them work for them and shame them into being silent. The things they ask them to do, regardless of orientation, cross those boundaries and they become traumatized. The more they work, the more leverage traffickers have over them. They offer them drugs and things to make them cross those boundaries whether they are straight or not.”
Disposti said his initial feeling on sex trafficking in North County, was that it was not happening — until they talked with kids who had started meeting at The Center. It was then that he realized that a lot of the kids, kids they serve, were commonly associated with sex traffickers. Sometimes, without them even knowing.
“It was really delicate work because we had to approach them in a way that wouldn’t drive them away from The Center by asking too many personal questions,” Disposti said. “In their eyes, they were finally finding a family dynamic that they had never experienced before, being groomed to eventually become a part of human trafficking. For LGBTQ youth, what allows them to fall victim to human trafficking is the lack of conversation about boundaries and sexuality, because these kids grew up completely unaware of what healthy relationships are. Especially when they come from a family where they are not respected for being gay.”
This need led to The Center’s Unicorn Homes program. Disposti said as they found people to rescue, many were transgender. He said with all the youth provider services in the county, this presented another problem, as many of these organizations did not have a space prepared to serve the transgender community. He said they all had excuses why they couldn’t help or would ask the individual to go back to their birth gender to be accepted.
“With Unicorn Homes, at a certain point, it became a way for us to help not only human trafficking, but LGBTQ homelessness,” Disposti said. “We created a system because we couldn’t wait for a building [shelter] to be built. In the meantime, Unicorn Homes is a network of families that we track, we trained, who are willing to host in their homes a youth. Some for five days, some for a month, some open their homes until the youth can finish high school. We don’t shame them [host families] for short term because if a youth shows up at The Center on a Friday, there is no social worker, so having a safe place for them to stay for a short period keeps them off the streets immediately. This gives us time when other organizations are open to find other possibilities for these youths. It’s lifesaving to get these kids off the streets.
“Unicorn Homes creates an environment where families come in, we match them with a youth and since last year, we have supported 45 homeless youth and gotten them off the streets,” Disposti continued. “In the meantime, we get them other critical services such as food stamps, mental health services, tutoring because each youth has different needs. We do this with rental assistance, deposits and other services to help them, especially if they already have jobs, but can’t afford to get their own place.”
Stephan said the DA’s office approaches sex trafficking as a very complex human rights violation, and a legal violation of the laws. It utilizes a “4 P’s program.” The first P is prosecution, in which they bring a hard attack to perpetrators and hold them accountable. This is done through the Human Trafficking Task Force, a 24/7 operation. But Stephan said that they never take their eyes off the fact that it is not all about prosecution. The second P is the perception of victims; the task force is extremely victim-centered and trauma-enforced.
“The DA’s office works closely with Lifeline and other providers that can specifically affirm and support whatever population the victim comes from or identifies with, so it is very affirming and uplifting for victims in the protection angle,” Stephan said. “The third P is prevention, which comes from real education and resilience-building by providing our kids a fighting chance so that they really understand that it is simply wrong to have somebody trade their bodies for a shelter or food. There are resources out there like the LGBTQ center in North County, the Unicorn Homes [program] and other organizations that stand with them and provide some of that support without asking for anything in return.”
The fourth P is the partnership with the community. It is about reaching out to every community and community leaders, and gaining partnerships so kids are supported through mentorship, appropriate foster care, families, medical or mental health care.
“With the LGBTQ youth, this is something I’ve really focused on seeing the very high risk and vulnerability for our children,” Stephan said. “One pivotal point for us was being able to find a former LGBTQ survivor who was willing to speak openly to law enforcement and help us to educate our task force members, prosecutors and police on what our LGBTQ community faces in terms of the barriers to reporting and for seeking help. I want everyone in our community to know that we stand with them, respect them and that our whole team is trained. Many in our team are LGBTQ persons and they should expect that they will get the highest level of service and support. We ask for their trust and we hope to earn their trust.”
Disposti said that this partnership has brought life to the victims of sexual trafficking and through it, a conversation is now on the table about why we, as a community, are failing victims of sex trafficking.
“You have this potential predator out there who has consensual sex with you but is feeding you money and things and it becomes a very toxic relationship,” Disposti said. “They only got into it, not because they like the guy, but because they needed the money. All of these factors bring lifetime repercussions.”
Gregory Richardson said that The Center did wonderful things for him through Unicorn Homes as a trans man of color.
“When I finally began to come out, I didn’t fully recognize my identity,” Richardson said. “I realized there was a chance for me to really explore this. However, my life at home kept me from fully being myself because I was harassed emotionally and physically for not shaving, for kissing girls, wearing suits and presenting as masculine. I secretly worked at the North County Resource Center because I wanted to learn and give as much as I could for my same-age range and to learn about the history. At my lowest point in high school, I faced a deeper abusive relationship with a partner whose own internal homophobia kept me from being out. I struggled with self-acceptance, and as many LGBTQ youth, struggled with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal attempts.”
Richardson said being a part of the Resource Center and an activist for people his age gave him an entirely new sense of purpose, and he “built a life out of the ashes that he had buried himself in.”
“My toxic family had destroyed my sense of self-worth,” Richardson said. “So, when I was kicked out, I was completely helpless and alone. I didn’t have any other place to go. But soon, this transformed into a life that is more substantial. Then I finally reached out for help. I got another chance to make things right. I found myself humbled and overwhelmed having nice warm showers and a place to sleep. I can’t explain how positive my life has been since the Unicorn Homes program started and the support that I received. I thank the Resource Center every day for making the platform that I needed to shine.”
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