“When I was a little girl I wanted to be Mariah Carey. I wanted to follow my dream of being a singer, and Las Vegas seemed magical in the movies,” recalled Angela (not her real name).
Angela had grown up in foster care in Hawaii, but as soon as she turned 18 she bought a one-way ticket to Nevada looking for a fresh start. It’s also where she met her half-brother for the first time after he was released from prison. But it wasn’t a grand family reunion.
He ended up selling Angela to men, trafficking her for sexual exploitation. “I just did what he said so we could survive,” said Angela.
Al Jazeera reports that trafficking in Las Vegas is hitting homeless teens hard:
While there is no formal research quantifying how many homeless young people are trafficked in the US, to activists, social workers, and rights advocates, the connection between the two is undeniably strong. One in every three homeless young people are trafficked within 48 hours of being on the street.
Lenore Jean Baptiste, a Las Vegas native who now coordinates Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY)’s mentorship programme, says that previous abuse that many young people have already experienced compounds the problem, giving traffickers an additional advantage.
“So, now, they have individuals approaching them saying, ‘I’ll house you and feed you. You’re already getting raped.’ But they say it in a more glamorous way, of course,” added Arash Gafoori, executive director of the NPHY.
According to NPHY, the average age of a trafficker in Nevada is between 17 and 27. This gives another advantage to the trafficker who often appears more like a peer than a predator.
Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of community services for the City of Las Vegas, says the city is aware of the scope of the problem.
“The city recognises that we have a high number of unaccompanied minors on the streets and we are working to help them break the cycle of youth homeless,” she said.
In 2013, the state passed harsher penalties for traffickers, especially those that traffic children.
According to the Nevada attorney general’s office, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has rescued more than 2,220 victims of sex trafficking since 1994. Last year alone more than 200 victims were identified, most of whom were children.
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