Young, Lost, and Exploited

California is a hotbed for homeless and exploited youth and in the Bay Area, more children are affected than we realize. They need help. Three Saint Mary’s alumni are doing everything they can to free our young neighbors from these serious circumstances. They are passionately devoted to rescuing children from the street and from human trafficking.

“When it comes to homelessness, we need to open our eyes,” said Sparky Harlan ’79, CEO of the Bill Wilson Center, a nonprofit agency serving runaway and homeless youth, and young families in Santa Clara County. “We tend to associate it with poorer families, poorer neighborhoods, and unemployed people. But there is a wide spectrum of housing instability and family insecurity. When you start drilling down, you begin to see that it affects children of all economic groups and all demographic profiles.”

In this grim category of growth, California and the Bay Area are unfortunately at the leading edge. Twenty percent of all homeless minors in the United States live in California, more than in any other state, according to the California Department of Education. More than 1.3 million students in public schools nationwide are homeless, and the Bay Area has more than 20,000 homeless kids enrolled in public schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Experts like Harlan—a recognized advocate for youth in foster care and the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth—say that even these estimates understate the actual number of kids who, according to the definition, “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

California also has some 600,000 students in private K-12 schools. How many of them are couch surfing, crashing with friends, living in cars, or otherwise unhoused or ill-housed? Harlan is administering a survey to students in several public and private Bay Area high schools to try to uncover such hidden problems.

“Too often, homeless children and youth are invisible to the systems meant to protect them. And the survival strategies of children and families can push them out of the recognized definitions of ‘homeless,’ even when their lives and well-being are at risk,” Harlan said. “We need to recognize the many varieties and risks of homelessness so we can address the problems effectively.”

A particularly troubling problem for homeless youth is their victimization through commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. Estimates of the number of sexually exploited homeless children range widely from the thousands to a staggering 2.4 million nationwide, according to a study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. There seems to be no true estimate.

“How do we not see the people right in front of us?” asked Holly Joshi MA ’15, a native of Oakland, where she was a police officer for 14 years. She’s seen it all in the line of duty. “Do we recognize that we are interdependent? Do we feel it? Or do we see it as everyone for himself?  What’s truly puzzling for Joshi is how much goes unseen.

“My experience as a cop was that if we broke up a brothel with young black women in it, we would see them just as part of the criminal operation, as offenders, not victims,” said Joshi, who stressed the importance of recognizing that all who are exploited sexually are victims.

Still more troubling is that in Alameda County, where Joshi has spent her career, 75 percent of identified commercially sexually exploited youth are black.

Wishing to do more to prevent the victimization of these homeless young, Joshi retired from police work last year to become deputy director of Youth UpRising in Oakland, a nonprofit social service agency. “As a cop, I would get there too late, after the child was already exploited,” she said. “Now, I can be there for that child earlier and maybe prevent the exploitation from happening.”

Youth UpRising focuses its services on East Oakland, a neighborhood of 120,000 people, of which 20,000 are youth between 14 and 24. Sociological statistics are grim: jobs are scarce, housing is costly, school enrollment is low, many families are struggling, and crime is high. Half of Alameda County’s homeless people live in Oakland; half of Oakland’s homeless are families and 30 percent of them are children.

Since its founding in 2005, Youth UpRising has given thousands of young clients opportunities to heal, be heard, learn, play, excel, and lead, and it reports remarkable outcomes for neighborhood youth in education, health, stability, and employment. The nonprofit’s stated mission is “to transform East Oakland into a healthy and economically robust community by developing the leadership of youth and young adults and improving the systems that impact them.”

Recently, Joshi became the program director for MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), a community-based organization in Oakland that serves sexually exploited minors. MISSSEY’s mission is to train the staff of youth-serving organizations and law enforcement agencies, health care providers, and educators to identify and help sexually exploited youth. Since 2007, it has trained 10,000 professionals. Any organization—government, non-government, community-based, educational—can request training from MISSSEY.

The missions of these organizations align perfectly with Joshi’s own mission and her postgraduate professional studies at Saint Mary’s: leadership. Joshi has just begun work on a doctorate in educational leadership at Saint Mary’s. She also plans to collaborate with the National Black Women’s Justice Institute in Washington, D.C., on intervening in the school-to-incarceration pathway for black girls.

John Vanek MA ’13—who spent 25 years on the San Jose police force, is an expert on human trafficking and a consultant on law enforcement, leadership, and collaboration—urges us all to take leadership in preventing the problems affecting so many young people and their families. In his recently published book, The Essential Abolitionist, which has earned praise from police, activists, and academics, he offers a blunt and impassioned invitation: “Be a modern abolitionist.”

“I use the term abolitionist to refer to anyone with an interest, passion, or professional role in opposing human trafficking,” said Vanek. “If you stand against slavery, against the exploitation of millions of people in our world today, you are an abolitionist!”

Millions? Isn’t slavery illegal? Vanek noted that slavery is legal nowhere but is practiced everywhere, generally in hidden ways, and he affirmed the estimate, published by the Polaris Project and others, that some 20 million people are enslaved worldwide, providing an annual value of $150 billion to their modern day masters.

In his book, Vanek explains the laws, unpacks key terms, analyzes statistics, explodes myths, corrects misconceptions, offers avenues for action, and, above all, preaches knowledge and collaboration. “At the heart of our response to trafficking has to be collaboration,” he said. “Everyone can make a contribution. But collaboration involves really studying who is doing what in your area. And philosophically speaking, let’s not get wrapped up in the big numbers and national and international trends. The question should be: Have you helped the people in your area?”

California and the Bay Area have the unhappy distinction of being hot spots for both labor and sex trafficking, according to the FBI and other organizations, and for both the importation of foreign victims and the coercion of U.S. citizens. Accurate statistics on these hidden crimes are difficult to settle, but it is generally accepted that California is among the top states in incidents of trafficking, and that about half of these crimes occur in the Bay Area, with its high cost of living, and growing number of families and youth with unstable financial and domestic situations. The more our children have to employ survival strategies, the larger the pool of potential victims. “If you are a boy or girl adrift or broke or homeless in a major city, your risk of being exploited is high,” warned Vanek.

However, it may be a positive sign that California is among the top five states in reporting possible incidents of human trafficking to the tip line at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Vanek said. It may indicate that Californians are also leading the nation in understanding the signs of human trafficking and being willing to combat it. “Both our independent reporting and our official response to trafficking may be more robust than elsewhere,” he said.

Vanek’s mission, as is Holly Joshi’s and Sparky Harlan’s, is to provide the knowledge, understanding, training, and tools to stop human trafficking and save our children.

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