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Housing Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking Study


Keywords: Human Trafficking, Homelessness, Housing Stability, Supportive Housing, Housing Needs

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Housing Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking Study

Housing Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking Study

Galen Savidge-Wilkins, Social Science Analyst, Office of Policy Development, PD&R
Claire Bufalino, Program Analyst, Office of Policy Development, PD&R

The reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2022 included a requirement that HUD conduct a study assessing the availability and accessibility of housing and services for individuals experiencing homelessness or housing instability who also are survivors of human trafficking or are at risk of being trafficked. On March 21, 2024, HUD released its report on the Housing Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking Study and an accompanying fact sheet. “Survivors of human trafficking” refers to people who are victims of crimes involving the exploitation of a person for labor, services, or commercial sex, but this study primarily uses the term “survivors” rather than “victims.” Research to better understand survivors’ needs is a growing focus of academic and policy work to address gender-based violence, and this study represents an important first step in exploring the relatively underexplored experience of homelessness and deep housing insecurity among trafficking survivors.

Congress explicitly tasked HUD with exploring the following topics related to the housing needs of trafficking survivors: methods of outreach and assessment, the availability of housing and services, access to mainstream housing and services, barriers to fair housing, and best practices in housing and service delivery. To address these questions, the study team, led by the Office of Policy Development and Research with support from the Director on Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Equity in the Office of the Secretary, conducted a detailed literature review and held extensive participant-driven listening sessions with federal, state, and local government partners and other stakeholders, including groups focused on research, policy, advocacy, direct service provision, and people with lived experience of human trafficking. Many of the most impactful and illuminating findings in this report come directly from survivors of sex and labor trafficking as well as from service providers working on the front lines in housing, homeless assistance, victim services, and antitrafficking programs.


Although data on the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States are limited and difficult to capture, the available data do offer some insight. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collects data on human trafficking from local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. In 2020, the FBI reported 2,023 incidents of human trafficking, of which 84 percent involved sex trafficking and 16 percent involved labor trafficking. Research from the U.S. Department of Justice, however, suggests that this number represents only a portion of trafficking cases. The most comprehensive available data source on the experience of human trafficking in the United States is the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which received reports of 10,359 trafficking situations in 2021 and identified 16,554 possible victims. Trafficking Hotline data capture some cases in which the potential victims did not want to report to law enforcement, but they still fall short of establishing true prevalence rates. Of cases reported to the hotline, 76 percent involved sex trafficking or a combination of sex and labor trafficking, and only 10 percent of reported cases involved labor trafficking alone. Overall, most survivors were women who had been victims of sex trafficking; however, men made up the largest share of survivors of labor trafficking. Data from the Trafficking Hotline and other research suggest that certain groups, including foreign national noncitizens, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and LGBTQIA+ youth survivors, are disproportionately represented. The available evidence, however, suggests that certain trafficking situations are significantly undercounted and that a high degree of uncertainty exists about the characteristics of trafficking survivors nationally.

Engaging Survivors, Outreach and Assessment

Too often, trafficking survivors are invisible to service providers, even to those working in intersecting fields, such as domestic violence or sexual assault. Even though survivors frequently encounter medical providers and law enforcement, analyses show that those institutions identify only a small portion of trafficking cases. Identifying survivors can be difficult for a number of reasons, including the fear of retaliation by their traffickers, interaction with law enforcement or immigration officials, or even judgment from people or systems that are meant to provide support. Being able to better identify survivors and understand their housing and service needs requires building trust and is a critical starting point for improvements to the housing and services system. Building trust requires engaging in trauma-informed service practices and avoiding outreach and intake processes that can retraumatize survivors. Outreach processes are inherently complex because of the hidden nature of trafficking, and progress is needed on reaching out to and identifying survivors to connect them with services, engaging siloed housing and service providers, coordinating service delivery, and building the capacity of the systems and service providers who are working with survivors already.

Available Resources for Survivors

HUD's core rental assistance programs increase housing stability, affordability, and choice for nearly 10 million households, but these programs reach fewer than 1 in 4 eligible people. HUD's homeless assistance programs similarly provide critical shelter, temporary assistance, and permanent housing in communities nationwide, but many programs are oversubscribed, contributing to growing numbers of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. We know that having access to those housing resources can protect vulnerable people from housing instability and homelessness, that those negative experiences can increase the risk of a person being trafficked, and that having housing stability helps survivors avoid environments that could lead to revictimization. The study found relatively few trafficking-specific resources, some (often time-limited) forms of housing assistance for survivors generally, and some examples of non-time-limited assistance funded by HUD that were made available to different survivor groups, such as a pilot program operated by the Chicago Housing Authority that issued housing choice vouchers to survivors of trafficking. The primary constraint of both specialized resources available to certain target groups and general housing assistance is that not enough resources exist to serve everyone who could benefit from them.

Barriers to Accessing Housing Resources

The policies and procedures guiding the operation of these housing programs significantly affect the ability of survivors to access support. For example, prioritizing assistance for particular groups and other restrictions can limit access to scarce resources. Getting access to the appropriate mix of housing and services in the first place presents a major challenge to survivors, who often must navigate complex, siloed programs that do not coordinate their services or information. In addition, programs that rely on private market housing also present a hurdle to survivors, who often struggle to find landlords willing to rent to them because of documentation requirements, criminal records, credit issues, poor rental history, or immigration status.

Barriers to Fair Housing

In addition to procedural barriers to accessing certain types of housing assistance, survivors often face unique barriers to fair housing. The survivor community disproportionately consists of groups that face systematic discrimination based on their race, color, national origin (including those with limited English proficiency), sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), familial status, and other protected characteristics. Survivors may also experience discrimination based on factors that are proxies for discrimination against protected classes, such as immigration status, language, and ethnicity. Survivors also can be targets for exploitative behavior in housing from those who prey on their personal trauma — in particular, their fear of losing housing, experiencing housing instability, revictimization, or having to engage with the criminal justice system or immigration enforcement.

Best Practices

Despite these real, systematic challenges to accessing appropriate housing resources, service providers nationwide are operating successful program models for survivors. The most promising programs share a consistent approach: a commitment to trauma-informed, survivor-centered service delivery that values the autonomy and choice of survivors. This approach is best reflected in the growth of programs targeting trafficking survivors that use a flexible financial assistance model or offer a continuum of housing options as well as providing wraparound supportive services tailored to each survivor's needs and circumstances. The Domestic Violence Housing First model being implemented in Washington State stood out as a promising and effective program that could be scaled and target trafficking survivors.


The study's principal finding is that, although many program models and approaches to service provisions exist that are well suited to addressing the housing needs of survivors of trafficking, they typically are not scaled to meet the present need. Beyond increased resources and increased training, these programs need technical assistance to better coordinate resources across often siloed housing and service providers and to better integrate trafficking-focused providers into the mainstream housing and homelessness systems.

The report's findings are intended to inform an ongoing discussion involving policymakers, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience. Although developing a full set of recommendations will require more research, discussion, and stakeholder engagement, these findings suggest several potential ways to improve availability and access to housing and services for survivors:

  • More support to foster collaboration and streamlining across systems, such as tools, training, and convenings on interagency cooperation, leveraging resources, and navigating policies and procedures.

  • Increased housing resources targeted to trafficking survivors, particularly resources that increase access to long-term housing assistance and wraparound services.

  • Investment in flexible funding sources, either by making existing major funding sources more flexible or by increasing funding for programs that currently have the most flexibility.

  • More meaningful engagement, partnership, and funding that directly support culturally specific and community-based organizations.

  • Greater focus on making practical changes to housing assistance applications, eligibility, screening, and intake processes, including with the use of technology, to reduce the traumatizing effects of navigating siloed systems.

  • More substantive inclusion and elevation of people with lived expertise in the areas of program design, policymaking, and leadership.

  • Increased emphasis on trauma-informed, survivor-centered service provision approaches within existing housing and homeless assistance providers.

  • Provide education and training to service providers and housing program staff on survivors' rights and housing barriers, including housing protections under the Violence Against Women Act and related laws; how to address issues related to criminal records or bad or no credit histories, landlord engagement methods, and the rights of noncitizens, foreign nationals, survivors with trafficking-specific immigration statuses, and undocumented survivors.

Survivors have diverse backgrounds and experiences, and their individual paths toward healing can vary considerably. Given this heterogeneity, policymakers looking to employ these promising program models should seek out the perspectives of survivors of labor and sex trafficking and meaningfully integrate their contributions into program design. Survivors' perspectives are especially vital to understanding the unique needs and experiences of key groups that are overrepresented among survivors, namely, youth and young adults, including those involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems; LGBTQIA+ individuals (and youth, in particular); noncitizens, foreign nationals, and survivors with certain immigration statuses; and African-American and American Indian/Alaska Native survivors. At the core of these varied experiences is a basic reality: safe and affordable housing helps prevent people at risk of trafficking from experiencing the kind of instability that can increase the risk of victimization, fosters stability that can prevent survivors from being revictimized, and, ultimately, supports survivors on their complex journeys to healing.

U.S. Department of Justice. n.d. “Human Trafficking.” Accessed 3 June 2024. ×

Congressional Research Service. 2022. “Criminal Justice Data: Human Trafficking,” 10 August; National Institute of Justice. 2020. “Gaps in Reporting Human Trafficking Incidents Result in Significant Undercounting.” Accessed 3 June 2024. ×

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Published Date: 11 June 2024

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.