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From Service to Survival: How Homeless Veterans Fall Prey to Human Trafficking

Updated: Jun 1

Author: Pinki Moni Dutta

Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash



Human trafficking is a serious violation of human rights that robs a person of their freedom and basic human rights in return for commercial, labor, and sexual acts(1,2). There is no age or particular ethnic groups exempt from falling victim of human trafficking. While data suggests that people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community are the most vulnerable demographics of society (3); there is reason to believe that veteran men and women are becoming more vulnerable to human trafficking too. Some dominant push factors like mental health issues, social segregation, domestic violence, and financial challenges can lead to veterans becoming vulnerable to trafficking. In this article, we will look at the scope of veteran human trafficking, explore the common locations, signs of human trafficking, legal regulations, and proposed solutions to address this pressing issue.


Scope of Trafficking in Veterans


According to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (4), over 35,000 veterans experience homelessness with 15,507 veterans experiencing unsheltered homelessness and live in streets (5). The 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) (5) found a spike in homelessness among veterans by seven percent. These veterans are left with little choice, but to undertake roles in sectors such as: agriculture, hospitality, religion, salons and parlors, caring for children and disabled people, etc. Unfortunately, some are forced into illegal sectors such as selling drugs and prostitution as means of survival (1).


Factors Contributing to Vulnerability (6, 7, 8)


Homeless veterans, both sheltered and unsheltered, face a myriad of challenges that increase their chances of getting trafficked. The inability to have a stable living condition and employment makes them targets for traffickers. Their lack of essential medical care, housing, and hygiene supplies exacerbate and increases the risks of mental health disorders like PTSD and anxiety. Therefore, placing them into desperate states of survival mode and more susceptible to manipulation.


 Common Locations of Trafficking (9)


Common locations of human trafficking of homeless veterans often occurs in locations that prove to be helpful for traffickers to find their victims by being anonymous. Common locations for trafficking include, but are not limited to:

  • Transportation Hubs: Bus and train stations are frequent sites where traffickers approach vulnerable veterans with job offers and accommodation. These hubs provide traffickers with a high turnover and different groups of people. This makes it easier to find and recruit victims without attracting any public attention.

  • Employment Agencies: Some traffickers pose as recruiters for temporary jobs, targeting veterans at job fairs or online job postings. They would promise quick employment and attractive incentives that lead to situations of forced labor.

  • Homeless Services and Shelters: While shelters promise a safe area for housing, safety, and survival, traffickers sometimes use these places to their convenience to prey on individuals by taking advantage of their desperation and trust.

  • Informal Labor Sites: Locations such as farms, construction sites, and factories where informal labor is common can also be hotspots for labor trafficking. Traffickers may exploit veteran's need for speedy employment to lure them into jobs with brutal conditions and no lawful protection.


Signs to Look For (10)


Recognizing the signs of trafficking isn’t always easy, but awareness is key to prevention and intervene. Here are some common signs that a veteran may be a victim of trafficking:


  • Unusual Work Conditions: Be wary of situations where an individual is not free to leave a job and works excessively for long hours under unusual restrictions. These jobs often have discrepancies between what was promised to them and what they are currently serving.

  • Controlled Communication: Another notable sign of trafficking could be when a person appears monitored or restricted in their communication and seems fearful or anxious when interacting with others.

  • Health Issues: Take note of the unexplained injuries, signs of physical abuse, or indications of neglected health care. Because these can be major red flags.

  • Behavioral Signals: If a person shows signs of fear, anxiety, addiction to drugs and alcohol, depression, or avoidance of eye contact, this might suggest that a person has been or is being trafficked.

  • Poor Living Conditions: Traffickers often control and manipulate victims by providing substandard living conditions. The victims are sometimes locked in, or their freedom of movement is restricted.

  • Lack of Personal Possessions: Traffickers often take hold of the personal and important documents of victims to keep them dependent on the traffickers. Victims of trafficking may lack personal identification documents or have few personal belongings with them (such as passport and Employment Authorization documents).


Community Awareness and Action (11)


Community awareness and individual action play critical roles in fighting the trafficking of homeless veterans. By volunteering with local veteran support groups, advocating for policy changes, and educating others about the signs of human trafficking, individuals can make a significant impact. Training staff at veterans' services, shelters, and employment agencies to recognize these signs can help prevent trafficking too. Similarly, commuters and employees at transportation hubs should be aware of and report suspicious activities. Thus, we can make a difference by getting involved in spreading the word and pushing for better support for our veterans.


Legal Framework, Government, and Other Supports (4, 12, 13, 14, 15)


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, along with various non-government mental organizations and community programs aim to support homeless veterans and prevent human trafficking. Programs like the HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) help veterans find housing to tackle homelessness and reduce their vulnerability to trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) provides a legal framework for prosecuting traffickers and providing support to victims. Despite these efforts, it is crucial to address the root causes of homelessness and trafficking among veterans as many veterans are unaware that they are being trafficked.




The issue of homeless veterans falling victim to human trafficking requires urgent attention and action. By understanding the contributing factors, supporting recovery, and strengthening legal and social support systems, we can begin to pull down the invisible chains of trafficking. This article calls on policymakers, community leaders, and citizens to step up and protect the veterans who have served their country.


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