Las Vegas, Nevada – The first time Angela* was sold for sex, she wasn’t looking for work.
Angela, 20 at the time, was sitting with her half-brother under the neon lights of Las Vegas’s Tropicana Boulevard. The Hawaiian transplant had been homeless for only a few weeks. A man in a pick-up truck stopped and offered her brother $50, assuming him to be her pimp. Her half-brother asked her to go with him. She was reluctant and scared, but felt obligated.
“We didn’t have food or money and this guy was offering it. I didn’t think I had a choice,” Angela says. She felt her self-worth disappear completely when the stranger subtracted the cost of the condoms he bought from the total he gave her. “I felt disgusted.”
Like many young people who find themselves vulnerable to trafficking in Las Vegas, Angela had come to the state of Nevada in the United States looking for a new start. She had grown up in foster care and she bought a one-way ticket off the island to Nevada as soon as she turned 18 years old.
“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,” she recalls.
Before coming to Las Vegas, she hadn’t met her half-brother, but had started writing to him when he was in prison.
Angela says when she finally got to Nevada – around the same time as her half-brother’s release – she entered an unknown world, describing how her brother and his friends went to strip clubs and bars.
“I thought it was so cool,” she says. “They started talking about making money with me, but I didn’t know what that meant. I just did what he said so we could survive.”
Angela says she was abused by her half-brother, with whom she also had sexual relations. The cycle of abuse continued for years, and eventually, she was sold for sex.
Thousands of Americans under the age of 25 are trafficked in the US every year, according to rights groups.
There is no definitive data on the number of young people currently trafficked, but it is estimated that about 293,000 young Americans are at risk of becoming victims of the sex trade. Human trafficking has been documented by state and federal law enforcement in every US state. Problematic economic and political factors in Nevada combined with a salacious culture make the state one of the worst affected, according to rights groups, survivors and activists.
‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas’
When the slogan “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” was coined more than 15 years ago, it helped transform Las Vegas from just a gambling capital to an expansive, lucrative adult playground.
Although Las Vegas does not reside in one of the 10 Nevada counties where sex work is legal, poorly regulated strip clubs and loopholes, like legal escort services where clients pay for a woman’s time, but not sex, create a landscape where lawful lines are often blurred. Officials estimate about 30,000 sex workers are operating illegally in Las Vegas, where only 1,000 are working in legal counties.
Tanya Smith was first trafficked at age 15 in San Diego in 2000. As an adult, she moved to Las Vegas and began dancing in a strip club, where she saw dancing and trafficking in girls often going hand in hand.
“When I was dancing, most of the girls I danced with had pimps. They were all advertised online on Backpage,” she says.
Smith remembers well how traffickers often convinced her to sell herself.
“The pimps always tell you that you’re not really selling sex, you’re selling time,” she recalls.
She says they use the fact that the work sometimes pays more than 10 times the US minimum wage, “it seems like a no-brainer”.
It “doesn’t matter whether or not it’s illegal [in the city] because the culture blurs those lines”, Smith adds.
Arash Ghafoori, executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), agrees.
“It’s not just the billboards on the strip. Trucks drive through residential neighbourhoods with huge adverts that read, ‘You lonely tonight?’ These ubiquitous signs tend to normalise the sex industry as something acceptable and desirable in the eyes of young people,” Ghafoori says.
In addition to the culture, other factors make things worse for young people and ideal for traffickers. During the last 20 years, Nevada has experienced rapid population growth, making it one of the fastest-growing states in the country. But the state was hit particularly hard by the 2008 financial crisis and has since ranked among the country’s worst areas for unemployment and housing foreclosure rates.
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Southern Nevada metropolitan region has the third-highest rate of homeless youth in the nation, and it is getting worse. Data from Clark County School District, in which Las Vegas is located, shows the number of young people who self-identify as homeless rose from around 9,000 children in 2013-2014 to almost 11,000 children in the 2016-2017 school year.
Nevada also ranked among the worst in the nation for its percentage of youth living on the streets instead of in shelters or transition programmes. Eighty percent of youth live on the streets, according to HUD’s Housing Inventory Count.
Ghafoori says the state’s political landscape and tax structure make things harder.
“We are among the least federally funded states per capita in the entire country,” he says.
In addition, Nevada’s low state taxes leave them with few resources to address the problem.
Homelessness “is happening to these kids during a really formative time. You haven’t even finished physically, mentally and physiologically developing,” Ghafoori adds. “The number-one risk factor to being sexually and commercially exploited as a youth is just being homeless, period. They don’t have people watching out for them. Traffickers know that they make easy prey for that reason.”
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 NPHY’s mentorship programme, says that previous abuse that many young people have already experienced compounds the problem, giving traffickers an additional advantage.
NPHY estimates that about 80 percent of the runaways it works with have experienced abuse. This was true for both Angela and Smith.
“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,” Ghafooi says.
Fighting an uphill battle
Although NPHY works to get young people off the streets and onto a better long-term path, the staff often feel the battle against traffickers is hard to win.
“We are competing with nefarious black-market actors that are approaching this with rather complex recruitment strategies,” Ghafoori says.
The traffickers themselves are also often young people, as well. 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.
Traffickers infiltrate school campuses and target malls where teens hang out, according to NPHY.
The organisation adds that traffickers sometimes pose as homeless youth themselves, feigning empathy and offering young people ideas on how to create a better life.
“They go up to girls and say, ‘Hey, why are you here? We can do better than this.’ They offer quick cash opportunities that look good,” Ghafoori laments.
“It’s very compelling compared to what we offer. We are giving them options to live responsible adult lives, with jobs and better long-term options, but in the short term, it’s not as glamorous.”
Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of community services for the City of Las Vegas, says the city “engages across sectors to address the needs of youth and youth-serving systems”.
She adds that “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” through a number of services and programmes.
In 2013, the state passed a law that increased the penalties for the trafficking individuals, particularly children.
According to the state’s attorney general’s office, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has rescued more than 2,220 victims of sex trafficking since 1994.
More than 200 victims were identified last year, the majority of whom were children, local media reported.
A second chance
Angela spent five years in the sex trade. She says she felt trapped.
“It was the threat of no job, food, home, or anyone to help, so my body was the opportunity and I kept repeating the cycle with other guys,” she says.
In 2014, after finishing with a client in a Motel 8, she invited her half-brother over to stay the night. According to Angela, they argued and her brother tied her up and blindfolded her before whipping her with an electric cord. She says he held her for 36 hours before the hotel told them they had to leave to make room for the next tenants. As they walked out the door of the room, Angela collapsed and a janitor who was nearby found her and called the police.
When she arrived at the hospital, she had broken ribs, a collapsed lung and two black eyes.
Caseworkers gave her fake name to protect her identity, enabling her to start afresh with the help of a programme at the Salvation Army designed specifically for victims of human trafficking.
Today, Angela uses her traumatic experience on the streets to train community mentors who work with homeless youth. Through a survivor-led advisory board at NPHY, she hopes to provide informed recommendations for providing care and effective programmes for working with at-risk and victimised youth.
She says she wants to focus on survivors of domestic violence and give them the tools and guidance necessary to become successful members of society.
“That is what I want to focus on, the ‘how-tos’ and the healing,” she says. “Nobody ever taught me ‘how to’ anything.”
For Ghafoori, helping people understand how serious the problem is and dispelling myths around homeless youth remains at the forefront of his work.
“So many people think that these kids are punks or troublemakers that want to be victimised,” Ghafoori says. “They don’t understand that these kids are scared with no one helping them, and they have to take matters into their own hands to survive.”
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.