Homeless Teens Targeted by Sex Traffickers
She was homeless in 4th grade. Taken in by a pimp. Later sold for sex.
It's a true story. And it happened here in Minnesota.
Experts say the problem of teen homelessness is growing across the state. Statistics compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education reveal that an estimated 13,000 Minnesota teenagers were homeless over a course of the school year in 2014.
Too often that makes them easy targets for sex traffickers.
"Anybody there?" shouts outreach worker Jose Acuna as his flashlight searches the darkness under a bridge in downtown Minneapolis. He knows from experience, it's a common refuge for homeless kids.
"It's not just the fact that they are homeless," said Acuna. "They're in danger."
Acuna knows he's in a race against time. He's trying to rescue young people caught between homelessness and something even worse.
After working more than 20 years for YouthLink, a non-profit in Minneapolis that serves homeless young people from 16 to 23, he knows about statistics that show homeless teens are often approached by sex traffickers within 36 hours of landing on the streets.
"Some days you don't eat," said a girl we're calling Connie. "Some days you don't sleep."
Her story is so traumatic, KARE 11 is concealing her face. But her emotional scars are easy to see.
"I don't think I'll ever be normal," she told us.
She says she landed on the streets because her mother was on drugs and her father was an alcoholic.
At the time, she was just 11-years-old.
Being homeless so young is frightening enough. But what happened next to Connie is truly terrifying.
She is 20 now, sharing her own painful story publicly for the first time, in hopes of saving others.
"When you're homeless," she recalled, "you're going to do whatever you've got to do when you get tired to be able to just take a shower or sleep in a bed."
Desperate to stop sleeping on a park bench, Connie says she was grateful when a stranger approached her offering help.
"She used to see me on the park bench all the time, and she said you want to come with me," Connie remembered.
Outreach workers see it all the time – offers of help that become an invitation to hell.
"Predators try to offer you a place to stay," said Acuna. "Sooner or later they start taking advantage of them."
Connie said the person who approached her offered her food and a warm place to stay.
"She bought me some food, some clothes." She sees now that it was just the first step in recruiting her.
"And then you're going to be sucked in," she said.
Soon there was a price paid in sex to men, she said. It was something she did not fully understand at the time, she told KARE 11.
"They do whatever they wanted to do, when they wanted to do it, how they wanted to do it," she said, choking back tears. "As many as they wanted to do it."
"We think that that doesn't happen here," says Acuna, the outreach worker. "But happens right here in Minneapolis."
How often is it happening? According to the Wilder Foundation in Minnesota, 1 in 10 boys who are homeless report that someone pushed them to sell their bodies for sex.
It's even worse for girls: 1 in 4.
KARE 11 asked a group of young people – homeless teenagers just a few years ago – if they were targets, too. All of them are now advocates at YouthLink.
"They were trying to force me verbally to come with them," said Kendra Krech, a 22 year old. "It's definitely scary and I think how lucky I am."
They weren't trafficked. But they admit they did just about everything else to stay warm.
"You out on the street, you want to make some money?" recalled Deyondre Colbert, 22, who was approached to sell drugs.
"This guy was like, do you want to make some quick money?" remembered Andrew Dunker, 20.
Kids who've live on the streets tell us they're turned away from shelters too often because the beds are full.
"Is that still something you see happening?" we asked.
"Yes. All day, every day," the group replied.
"People your age or younger?"
Some communities in the Twin Cities metro have or are in the middle of adding shelters for homeless youth, including in Coon Rapids where advocates at Hope 4 Youth, a drop-in center, worked for the past several months to secure a transitional housing unit for young adults.
Bridge for Youth in Minneapolis shelters homeless youth and will be adding beds in Chanhassen, according to spokesperson Stephanie Svee. It will be the first shelter in the west metro for youth, she said.
But Svee said the shelter still had to turn 200 youth away this past summer because there wasn't enough room.
Even when kids are homeless, many teens still try to attend school.
"These young people are so vulnerable," says Karrie Schaaf. She works with homeless students in the biggest school district in the state, Anoka-Hennepin.
Even in the suburbs, she said some of her students struggle to stay warm, some sleeping in porta-potties.
"That's a tragedy. Our young people going to high school just trying to get a diploma, spent the night in a porta-potty," she said. "That's where they had to sleep."
In just the last three years, Schaaf said the number of homeless students she's counted who are on their own have more than doubled and students whose families are homeless have increased too.
While schools are often a refuge, we discovered they also can be a target for traffickers.
Remember Connie? The homeless 4th grader on the park bench lured into sex trafficking by someone who seemed to be offering help?
She said the person who brought her in was also a child.
"I was like in the 4th grade, she was like in the 6th grade," Connie said.
She said she was lured in by another child, a 6th grader, also tricked into sex trafficking and manipulated into recruiting others.
As painful as it is to admit, Connie said that over time she was turned into a recruiter, too.
"I became a predator," she said during an interview. "I was preying on girls."
The cycle of homelessness and abuse had come full-circle leaving deep scars of regret.
"I shouldn't have did that to nobody," Connie said, "but I did."
Through a lot of hard work and help from the Link-Passageways in Minneapolis, Connie has escaped trafficking.
The Link's executive director Beth Holger-Ambrose said she is applying to colleges and currently is working with the link, helping many other people just like her.
"Her future is a bright one," said Holger-Ambrose. "She is incredibly reliable, hard-working, smart, and has very good and natural leadership skills."
They believe her tireless work to help others is unmatched.
"I just want to help people. I just want to make someone feel better," she told KARE 11.
Yet she still is coming to terms with a difficult past.
"You dream about it. You taste it, you still smell it. You don't forget," she said.
The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities also does a lot of outreach, especially in the suburbs where experts believe the problem of teen homelessness is just as pervasive.
"The need in the suburbs is still greater than the resources available to meet those needs," said Joan Schimml, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at the YMCA.
Currently in Anoka County, the YMCA is the only agency that provides youth outreach by trained staff, and is the only housing provider serving homeless youth in that county, as well.
"Youth in the suburbs are often still more vulnerable and at greater risk both due to lack of resources and/or lack of transportation or ways to access resources that are available," she said.
Not only does she and others believe youth need better access to transportation, but more affordable housing options.
The Bridge for Youth in Minneapolis has also helped launch a website and a smart phone app in September that allows youth to see how many openings there are at area shelters and access other resources. The group also offered a new text hotline, 612-400-SAFE. It allows teens and families to text for help 24-hours a day.