The trafficking of young adults isn't only a problem in developing nations.

In the U.S. and Canada, nearly one-fifth of homeless youth are victims of human trafficking, according to new studies.

Of 911 homeless young adults interviewed between February 2014 and March 2017, about 20 percent reported being trafficked for sex, labor or both. The majority, 15 percent, were trafficked for sex, 7.4 percent were trafficked for labor, and 3 percent were trafficked for both.

The findings, based on the largest-ever combined sample of homeless youth in the U.S. and Canada, are the result of a joint project of the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University New Orleans.

Researchers interviewed 17- to 25-year-olds in 13 cities from Vancouver to the District of Columbia to ask about human trafficking, which the U.S. government defines as "modern-day slavery" that "involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act."

Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania's Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research, said trafficking rates were consistent despite the different sizes of the cities. Most of the youth interviewed had used services at Covenant House, a charity that operates the largest network of shelters and community service centers for homeless youth in North America.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth were disproportionately affected by sex trafficking, researchers found. Though the group made up only 19.2 percent of the respondents, it accounted for about 34 percent of sex trafficking victims, and about 32 percent of those who engaged in the sex trade.

Transgender young adults were the most vulnerable to the sex trade. Of transgender youth interviewed, 56 percent reported being involved in the sex trade in some way.

Among homeless youth, women had higher odds of being involved in the sex trade. Of women surveyed, 40.5 percent said they had interacted with the industry, while 25.3 percent of young men reported involvement.

Certain risk factors put youth more at risk to be victimized, researchers said. Almost all of the young adults, or 95 percent, involved with sex trafficking surveyed by University of Pennsylvania reported mistreatment during their childhood, with 49 percent reporting a history of childhood sexual abuse. Youth who completed high school and reported the presence of a supportive adult in their lives were less likely to be sex trafficked.

When it came to labor trafficking, most cases, or 81 percent, were instances of forced drug dealing, according to research by the Modern Slavery Research Project at Loyola University New Orleans.

Schilling Wolfe, of the Field Center, said one way to limit the trafficking of homeless young adults is to eliminate the causes of homelessness.

"The child welfare system and the foster system create homeless young adults," she says. "When young people turn the magic age of 18 or 21, depending on the state, they are on their own. Without the training, support and resources to survive, they become victimized. We need to do a better job of launching our adolescent population into adulthood."

Between 11 and 37 percent of youth who age out of foster care become homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They are even more likely to have unstable housing arrangements.

Tags: United States, Canada, homelessness

Devon Haynie is news editor, international for U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at

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