How Las Vegas Became A Breeding Ground for Sex-Trafficking Homeless Youth

by Madeline Moitozo

The first time Sophia Moore* was trafficked for sex it was because she was mistaken as a sex worker by a stranger. Wearing short shorts in an attempt to survive the summer heat,  she sat with her half-brother under the neon lights of Tropicana Boulevard. The Hawaiian transplant had been homeless only a few weeks. A man in a pick-up truck stopped and offered her brother fifty dollars, assuming him to be her pimp.

“We didn’t have food or money and this guy was offering it. I didn’t think I had a choice.” Parker says. Moore felt her self worth disappear completely when the stranger subtracted the cost of the condoms he bought from the total he gave her. “It wasn’t fun. I felt disgusted.”

Like many youth who find themselves vulnerable to trafficking, she had come to Nevada looking for a new start. Growing up in foster care, she bought a one-way ticket off the island as soon as she turned 18. “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 remembers.

She had a half-brother in Las Vegas she had never met in person, but had been a pen pal. A social worker helped connect them, assuming family might help her adjust to a new place.  “When I met him, he was part of a different lifestyle. His friends would go to strip clubs, and I thought it was so cool,” she adds. “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.”

Sex-trafficking has a reputation for being an international phenomenon that can creep onto U.S. soil, yet thousands of American youths are trafficked inside the United States every year. While definitive research to track the exact number of young people affected is lacking, the FBI reports 293,000 American youths are currently at risk of becoming victims of the sex trade. Human trafficking has been documented in every U.S. state. Problematic economic and political factors in Nevada combined with a salacious culture make the state one of the worst affected.

Tourism That Bolsters Economy Comes At a Steep Price to Locals

When the slogan ‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas’ was coined over 15 years ago, it helped transform Las Vegas from just a gambling capital to an expansive, revenue-rich adult playground.The catch phrase elicited a sense of freedom for those seeking debauchery through adventures that extended beyond the confines of casino floors.

Surprisingly, Las Vegas does not reside in one of the ten Nevada counties where sex work is legal. But 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 too often blurred.  Officials estimate 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. Later, she moved to Las Vegas to dance in strip clubs and says getting trafficked came second hand. “When I was dancing, most of the girls I danced with had pimps. They were all advertised online on Backpage.”

Arash Gafoori, Executive Director to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), says the culture created for tourism has a huge impact on young people.  “It’s not just the billboards on the strip. Trucks drive through residential neighborhoods with huge adverts that read, ‘You lonely tonight?’ These ubiquitous signs tends to normalize the sex industry as something acceptable and desirable in the eyes of young people.

Casino Rich, Resource Poor

In addition to an exploitive culture, other factors makes things worse for youth and ideal for traffickers.  During the last 20 years, Nevada has experienced rapid population growth ranking it as the fastest growing state in the nation. But the Silver 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. The impact on youth without support seeking job opportunities is particularly stark.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Southern Nevada metropolitan region has the third highest rate of homeless youth in the nation, and it is growing. Data from Clark County School District (where Las Vegas is located) alone shows the number of young people who self-identify as homeless has risen from around 9,000 children in 2013-2014 to almost 11,000 children in the 2016-2017 school year.

Nevada also ranked worst in the nation for percentage of homeless youth living on the streets instead of shelters or transition programs, with 80 percent living on the streets. According to the Housing Inventory Count, only 99 beds in homeless shelters were specifically made available to people under 25 last year and only 285 were made available to the population at all.

Gafoori 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.” In addition, low Nevada state taxes leave them with few resources to address the problem.

Regardless of tight resources, for over ten years NPHY has managed to be a swiss army knife of services for runaways and young people without a place to live. They provide transitional housing and emergency shelter as well as 24-hour mobile crisis counseling, a mentorship program, family reunification services, and street outreach.

“[Homelessness] is happening to these kids during a really formative time. You haven’t even finished physically, mentally and physiologically developing,” Gafoori 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 formal research is lacking to quantify exactly how many homeless youth are trafficked in America, the connection between the two is undeniably strong. One of every three homeless youth are trafficked within 48 hours of being on the street.

Lenore Jean Baptiste, a Las Vegas native who now coordinates NPHY’s mentorship program, adds many are previously abused, which becomes a huge advantage to traffickers. “Upwards of 80 percent of runaways we work with have experienced abuse in the household. 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.”

Fighting an Uphill Battle

While NPHY services help youth get off the streets and onto a better long-term path, the staff often feel the battle against traffickers is hard won. “We are competing with nefarious blackmarket actors that are approaching this with rather complex recruitment strategies,” says Gafoori.

Tanya Smith remembers well how traffickers sold the idea of young people exploiting themselves.“The pimps always tell you that you're not really selling sex, you're selling time. And everyone gets paid for their time--that's what having a job is. They know that if had a legal job, I’d only make minimum wage. So you have this man telling you that for 20 seconds of jerking someone off, you can get $100. It seems like a no brainer.”

NPHY reports traffickers are younger than one might expect, between 17 and 27, and often occur to youth more like peers than predators. They have been reported infiltrating school campuses and targeting malls where teens hang out.  Nevada has the worst-rated education system in the nation, which makes it that much easier for those looking to exploit. “More employee layoffs have just been announced in this school district, so you have these schools without proper supervision to track who is a student and who is not,” says Baptiste.

NPHY staff say traffickers sometimes even pose as homeless youth themselves, feigning empathy and offering them 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,” Gafoori 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.”

A Second Chance

For Sophia Moore*, it would be five years before her cycling through the sex trade would end, and only because her life depended on it.  Even during the times her brother was in jail and she was on her own, 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.”

It was a near death experience landing Sophia in the intensive-care unit for 12 days that finally closed her chapter on the streets. A janitor found her lifeless body in the hallway of a hotel  where her brother had held her against her will during an argument. “He tied me up and blindfolded me. He cut the cord off my hair straightener and was using that to whip me for a long period of time, to the point where I was numb.”  She arrived at the hospital with broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and two black eyes. Case workers gave her an fake name to protect her identity, enabling her to start fresh with the help of a program at the Salvation Army.

Today, Sophia 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 programs for working with at-risk and victimized youth. “I have all sorts of ideas. These mentors have good hearts, but they need to be trained on what life is really like for these survivors. I know I can help with that.”

For Gafoori, 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 victimized. 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.”

*Last name changed at the subject’s request