Housing First and Survivors of Human Trafficking

May 17, 2019 | by Meggie

One of the primary needs our participants identify is housing – emergency, transitional, and permanent. Unfortunately, housing options are relatively limited in the Chicagoland area. Let’s dig in deeper to explore the need for housing, break down the available options, and consider alternative structures that could meet the needs and concerns of human trafficking survivors.

STOP-IT’s approach supports the Housing First model, which understands the importance of stable, permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness. It is grounded in the belief that people’s basic needs for shelter and food often must be met before they can attend to other concerns such as employment, healthcare access, or mental health support. As All Chicago explains, “safe and stable housing is essential for people to succeed in all parts of life, including health, employment, and education” (n.d.).

While STOP-IT is unable to offer our own housing, we partner with domestic violence shelters, anti-trafficking residential programs, and community-based resources to connect our participants to the housing options that they identify as best for them. We are grateful to our partners for their collaborative and intentional efforts to support survivors of human trafficking. We also see a dearth of available options, which limits our participants as they work toward their goals.

What Housing Options Exist for Survivors of Human Trafficking?

Emergency Shelter: Any facility, the primary purpose of which is to provide temporary or transitional shelter for the homeless in general or for specific populations of the homeless (HUD, n.d.)

When we get calls for emergency housing on our 24-hour hotline, the options available are the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline and 311. Domestic violence shelters primarily serve cisgender women and children whose experiences of sex trafficking overlap with those of intimate partner violence. This means that transgender folks, cisgender men, survivors of labor trafficking, and undocumented individuals or individuals with visas experience significant barriers to accessing safe, trauma-informed, emergency housing.

Transitional Housing: A project that has as its purpose facilitating the movement of homeless individuals and families to permanent housing within a reasonable amount of time (usually 24 months) (HUD, n.d.)

Many residential programs focused on serving human trafficking survivors operate as transitional housing, supporting survivors in accessing safety and attending to their own healing before working on longer-term goals that would lead to more permanent housing in their chosen community. These programs offer a lot of structure for their participants and often incorporate a religious component to their requirements. For some survivors, this model offers the stability and community needed to work toward long-term goals. For others, programmatic restrictions and expectations can serve as reminders of their previously controlling and exploitative situations. Additionally, many anti-trafficking residential programs serve only female-identified young people leaving sex trafficking situations. This focus can foster safety and mutual aid through shared experiences. Unfortunately, it also leaves out people who do not share these identities or experiences.

Permanent Housing: Community-based housing without a designated length of stay in which formerly homeless individuals and families live as independently as possible (HUD, n.d.)

As a program, our ultimate goal is to support participants in accessing the building blocks they need to obtain permanent stable housing, whether that looks like living independently in an apartment, living in a community-based setting with additional support, or something in between.

These longer term housing options can make a huge impact. In June 2016, after advocacy on the part of federal and non-governmental stakeholders, the Chicago Housing Authority set aside 60 housing choice vouchers over a 3-year period to provide housing assistance to survivors of human trafficking referred from one of six agencies, including STOP-IT. Since then, 45 survivors have applied for housing choice vouchers and 30 applicants have been housed to date. The survivors with whom we work have found homes of their own liking and felt stability in a more permanent space that would have otherwise not been afforded to them.

The program, while an immense resource, isn’t the best fit for everyone and certainly isn’t a Housing First model. However, for those that can abide by the program requirements and work within the limits of the existing program, it truly does change the way in which folks feel they can move forward after a trafficking experience. 

Unfortunately, 60 vouchers is far from enough. There are limited housing options outside of Chicago or Cook County. For many survivors who were trafficked in the city limits, a more suburban environment (or an environment that is not the site of their victimization) is a safer and more healing option. On the other hand, there are just as many folks who have experienced trafficking in Chicago and who wish to stay in the area, because they view it as familiar and better-resourced than surrounding areas.

These nuances indicate the need for collaborative and creative efforts to provide more trauma-informed, stable housing to survivors of human trafficking. All of the housing resources listed above are important options for our participants, and there is still more work to be done! We need more housing options that serve survivors who hold a wider range of identities, and that offer innovative structures, such as programs that pair survivors with families who are well-supported as they offer refuge. We need communal systems that help combat feelings of isolation and helplessness. We need affordable trauma treatment programs that support survivors in reconnecting with their own voice and sense of self.

What do you think?

What have we missed? What housing options are you aware of that meet survivors where they are and support them in their growth?


All Chicago. (n.d.) The Case for Ending Homelessness Retrieved from https://allchicago.org/sites/allchicago.org/files/Case_Statement.pdf

HUD. (n.d.) Glossary. Retrieved from https://www.huduser.gov/portal/glossary/glossary.html

Demonstration Programs and Special Initiatives. Chicago Housing Authority. Retrieved from https://www.thecha.org/about/plans-reports-and-policies/demonstration-programs-special-initiatives


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