Arizona has fewer shelter beds for homeless youth than it has in years, more young people becoming homeless, and high rates of sex and labor trafficking among homeless youth, research shows.
This month, the National Homelessness Law Center gave the state a “critically low” score in its annual review of laws and policies that impact homeless youth. Only two states, North Dakota and Arkansas, received worse scores.
A report from the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research released earlier this year found that 40% of people interviewed who were experiencing homelessness between the ages of 18 to 25 had experienced sex or labor trafficking.
LGBTQ youth are even more likely to be exploited, the report found.
The most significant provider of youth shelter and services, Tumbleweed, went bankrupt in 2016, and most of its services folded and have not been replaced.
“What we’re seeing here in Maricopa County is so distressing. Almost all of our youth homeless programs have disintegrated,” ASU professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz said.
But some relief could be on the way. The state has committed a significant amount of federal COVID-19 relief funds for more shelter and services for homeless youth.
Few services, high rates of youth homelessness
Youth homeless has been on the rise in recent years.
During the 2019 annual point-in-time count, volunteers located 387 people experiencing homelessness between the ages of 18 to 24. The following year, they found 530 young people experiencing homelessness.
The count wasn’t conducted in 2021 because of COVID-19 concerns. The full 2022 report, which will break down homelessness by age, is expected later this spring.
Meanwhile, youth shelter options and resources are at their lowest point in modern history.
“There is less resources for youth right now than there was 15 years ago when I started working with homeless kids,” said Gina Read, program manager at One N Ten, an organization that works with LGBTQ youth.
One N Ten has a small transitional housing program with room for about 10 young people. Space doesn’t open up often, so the organization most frequently refers people to Native American Connections, which operates the only remaining emergency shelter for youth in metro Phoenix.
Space there is limited, too.
Native American Connections’ HomeBase shelter provides dorm-style housing for 20 people ages 18-24. The organization also runs Saguaro Ki, a transitional housing program with 24 apartments.
“There basically is not a whole lot that we can do to refer these kids,” Read said.
Young people can, and often do, go to traditional single-adult shelters, like Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix, but experts say they’re more likely to get out of homelessness quickly in specialized youth shelters.
Roe-Sepowitz said young people have different needs, both socially and educationally, and can reintegrate quicker than people who have been experiencing homelessness for decades.
“We have this great opportunity while their brains are still developing … to change the direction of their lives,” she said.
Exploitation common among youth
Roe-Sepowitz and her ASU colleagues have surveyed youth experiencing homelessness across the state for eight years.
She said the goal is to listen to young people and their experiences to better understand their needs.
Her team has uncovered a troubling trend of exploitation of young people experiencing homelessness.
Of the 89 young people surveyed in 2021, 40% said they had experienced sex or labor trafficking.
Sex trafficking can look like forced prostitution or could be less formal agreements to have sex in exchange for basic needs. Young people reported trading sex for a place to stay most frequently. In past years, food was the most common exchange.
Labor trafficking can look like forced drug dealing, coerced employment or, most commonly, domestic servitude.
“We see young people being easily manipulated, being naive or being in a situation where they’re so new to it that they’re desperate. Traffickers can really use that as a manipulation,” Roe-Sepowitz said.
Young people who reported experiencing sex trafficking were significantly more likely to report addiction, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm and trauma histories, according to the ASU report.
LGBTQ youth are more likely to become homeless and are overrepresented as trafficking victims.
Read said her organization has seen a decrease in parents kicking their kids out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, they push them out by not accepting them and making their home environment inhospitable.
LGBTQ youth still experience high rates of harassment at school as well, Read said.
“They figure, ‘I’m better off on my own,’ and unfortunately that’s not the case,” Read said.
Roe-Sepowitz said LGBTQ youth are especially appealing to predators because these young adults often don’t have a support system and crave a sense of belonging, making them easy targets to manipulate.
Some reprieve on the way
Roe-Sepowitz said there are few shelter and resource options for youth because organizations are spending more time on other sections of the homeless population and haven’t gone after federal funds for youth homelessness.
But she’s hoping a big change is coming.
Late last year, Gov. Doug Ducey announced almost $ 8 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds for youth homelessness programs, including the purchase of a 58-bed transitional housing facility in the West Valley for a new Native American Connections youth transitional housing program.
Additionally, Roe-Sepowitz said the Arizona departments of Housing and Economic Security plan to offer additional grants to help youth experiencing homelessness this year.
She said she hopes organizations and stakeholders come together to find new ways to meet the needs of the state’s youngest homeless residents.
“We have this great opportunity – starting brand new,” Roe-Sepowitz said.
Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.