Roughly one out of five homeless or marginally housed young people in major cities throughout North America have been victims of human trafficking.
That's the takeaway from a study published Tuesday by Loyola University's Modern Slavery Research Project.
The study was done over a period of more than two years in 10 major cities throughout the United States and Canada, including New Orleans.
It found that homeless young people are vulnerable to both sex and labor trafficking because they are more likely than others to be exposed to underlying risk factors, including poverty, unemployment, a history of sexual abuse and a multitude of mental health issues.
Dr. Laura Murphy, the project's director, said most of the 641 young people interviewed had experienced discrimination in their jobs and housing, and had struggled to find paid work, affordable housing or support systems.
Many reported a fear of sleeping on the streets, which led to "survival sex." Others indicated they encountered people who took advantage of them when they were searching for gainful employment.
"Our hope is that hearing the firsthand voices of survivors in this report will help us further develop appropriate and effective programs that make escape possible for victims and ultimately make our youth more resilient against traffickers," Murphy said.
To get the data, a research team interviewed 641 homeless and runaway people between 17 and 25 years old.
The respondents were living in Covenant House shelters, transitional living centers, apartment programs and drop-in centers. The interviews were conducted between February 2014 and June 2016.
More than 14 percent, or 92 total respondents, said they had been trafficked for sex. Eight percent, or 52 young people, had engaged in forced labor, while 3 percent had been subject to both.
Of the 92 identified as victims of sex trafficking, more than half said they had been forced or coerced into the situation. Eighty-one percent said they were forced to deal drugs.
A whopping 91 percent of the total respondents reported being approached by someone who was offering a lucrative work opportunity that ended up involving commercial sexual exchanges, fraudulent commission-based sales or scams.
The report recommends Congress pass the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, which would provide funding to prevent trafficking.
"Runaway and homeless youth shelters and programs should be equipped to meet the needs of trafficked youth because they are able to address the root economic and societal problems that make youth vulnerable to exploitation," the report said.