By Sam Buisman — Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer
Every day at Covenant House Alaska, we serve young people who are enduring or are susceptible to exploitation.
With nearly three in 10 of the youth we serve having experienced some form of human trafficking, combatting this incomparable evil is a tenant of our programming at Covenant House Alaska. Our efforts inside our facilities and outside on the streets work to empower young people to retake control of their lives and end their trafficking experience.
According to Associate Program Coordinator Eileen Wright, the core of what we offer youth undergoing trafficking is simple, yet lifesaving.
“Sometimes I think of all those things that these youth have been through, and I always wonder to myself, what is it that keeps them moving forward?” said Wright. “And it is hope. Covenant House provides hope. That’s what we do. We’re in the business of hope.”
Human Trafficking in Alaska
The first thing to understand about human trafficking in the US and Alaska is that no one truly understands the full extent of the problem.
Human trafficking is drastically underreported in the US due to the hidden nature of the crime, incomplete data and difficulty in reaching trafficked persons. Accordingly, most researchers who study this issue believe that their data underestimate the scope of this issue.
With this caveat in mind, the Global Slavery Index estimates the number of people in the US currently experiencing sex or labor trafficking to be around 403,000 people.
Additionally, other figures suggest that the prevalence of human trafficking in the US may be on the rise; the National Human Trafficking Hotline saw a 19% increase in usage from 2018 to 2019.
Similarly, the annual number of trafficking cases in Alaska reported to the hotline has risen by 60% from 2015 to 2019, with a peak of 19 cases in 2018.
These figures do not conclusively prove that trafficking is on an uptick — they may only indicate an increase in the use of the hotline. Yet, they demonstrate that human trafficking is a real and dire issue in our community.
What Human Trafficking Looks and Doesn’t Look Like in Alaska
The Department of Justice defines human trafficking as “ a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” However, what human trafficking looks like in practice can differ from state to state.
As Trafficking Program Coordinator Heather Hagelberger is quick to mention, Alaska faces a distinctive and misunderstood human trafficking situation.
“It’s not what Hollywood depicts it as,” said Hagelberger. “It’s not a lot like what is even seen in the lower 48.”
The sensationalized abductions of movies like “Taken,” where a stranger kidnaps someone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, is a rarity in Alaska. So is the gang-related trafficking that accounts for a sizable proportion of the issue in the lower 48.
According to Hagelberger, trafficking situations in Alaska mostly involve a trafficker manipulating a family member or someone whom they know well to fulfill a certain need. This could be a need of the trafficker in particular or of the entire family, such as keeping the lights or heat on.
This dynamic can make it difficult for someone to recognize that they are being trafficked while giving them a perverse sense of pride in upholding a familial responsibility.
“They don’t see the coercion,” said Hagelberger, “especially if it’s your mom, your uncle, your grandfather, and it’s for the family. Like, ‘This is just what we do to get by and take care of things.’”
These traffickers often exploit an individual’s pre-existing trauma, which they may be privy to as a family member or close friend, to push them into such a situation.
However, Hagelberger cautions against locking these commonalities into a singular archetype for trafficking in Alaska and letting common red flags metastasize into stereotypes, as this can rob one of the vigilance necessary to spot a trafficking situation.
“Somebody could be failing in school or showing up in clothing that’s inappropriate for the weather — sure, those are things that draw people’s attention immediately,” said Hagelberger. “But that’s just a broad generalization. A person could have straight A’s in school and a good friend group and still be sexually assaulted every night by somebody because of their trafficker.”
In a sense, trafficking in Alaska has not one look but many individual looks, each resembling a unique case with a unique person in a unique situation.
Trafficking and Homelessness
Battling human trafficking is a key initiative for Covenant House Alaska because young people who are experiencing homelessness are favored targets for human traffickers.
For a young person, the experience of homelessness almost always means a struggle to fulfill the most basic of human needs. Traffickers can prey on these circumstances to gain control over them.
“It doesn’t even have to happen quickly,” said Wright. “They could just be like, ‘Hey, I have a couch you can sleep on,’ and one day turns into a week, which turns into, ‘Hey, you now owe me for this place that I’ve let you stay.’”
Our best data, a 2016 Loyola University study, indicates that nearly 30% of the youth at Covenant House Alaska’s shelter have experienced some form of human trafficking. This was the second-highest rate of trafficking among the 10 Covenant House locations across the US and Canada included in the study.
Human trafficking is a problem endemic not only to the population we serve but to the community we are in as well. Resultantly, working towards its resolution is a cornerstone of our mission at Covenant House Alaska.
Street Outreach Team
At Covenant House Alaska, our Street Outreach team acts as our first responders to human trafficking.
This mobile team finds and travels to youth living on the street and is often our first point of contact with individuals being trafficked. Its members come equipped to provide such youth with food, warm clothing on the spot and help them access medical care, working to build relationships with these young people and direct them to our other services.
According to Wright, the ability to reach out to young people instead of waiting for them to come to our facilities is a boon to our anti-trafficking efforts.
“If they are engaging in something that isn’t allowed at the shelter, that doesn’t have to be a barrier to meeting with them,” said Wright. “Removing that barrier in itself can just create a relationship, and that relationship is the beginning to healing.”
Meeting these youth where they are, both physically and emotionally, can be essential in breaking the mental bindings of trafficking.
“When you are in the midst of a trafficking situation, you feel like you have no worth, that no one’s ever gonna care about you again,” said Hagelberger. “We work to tear that down. It’s accepting right where you are.”
Fighting Trafficking via Youth Empowerment
Our larger programming at Covenant House Alaska combats trafficking through empowering young people. Unconditionally offering them the basic needs for human survival prevents traffickers from leveraging those needs against them, allowing a young person to decide to leave a trafficking situation.
“Our role really is just to show them what they have inside of them: the capability to walk away from a situation,” said Wright. “And if they want our help, we can help them.”
With our Youth Engagement Center, Charlie Elder House, MACK House and Right of Passage programs all offering different populations of young people access to shelter, food, healthcare, employment and education services and much more, we can always be available for any young person who decides they want a helping hand.
“Our only goal here is to be a group of people, an organization, who is there unconditionally,” said Hagelberger, “because they don’t have anyone else in their life who’s going to do that for them.”
The key aspect of this relationship with our young people is choice. Empowerment is not possible if we are forcing our youth to make certain decisions or meet certain conditions to receive our services. It does not make any sense to attempt to end a situation in which a young person’s autonomy is restricted by restricting it in a different way.
“They know what they need for their lives. They are the expert for themselves,” said Hagelberger. “So if I come in and say, ‘No, this is what you should be doing,’ that’s totally disregarding their own ability and agency to understand what they need for themselves.”
Unconditional service for those who choose to receive it. This mantra guides our anti-trafficking efforts at Covenant House Alaska, and so much more of what we do.
Anchorage is in This Together
We at Covenant House Alaska do all we can to mitigate human trafficking in our state, but there is a role for every one of its citizens to play as well.
Hagelberger stressed that despite how overwhelming this problem may seem, it is more than possible for one person or a small group to make a difference.
“Get a group together, learn, educate yourself,” said Hagelberger. “Be situationally aware, and then know who to contact.”
According to Wright, donations of money or time, large or small, can make a huge difference in a young person’s life.
“Sometimes, people think it needs to be these broad acts, and it doesn’t,” said Wright.
By supporting Covenant House Alaska, you tell a vulnerable young person that they matter.