Homeless people are at huge risk of being targeted by criminal gangs and also of being re-exploited. Victims often become homeless when they escape traffickers or if they leave government support – creating a vicious cycle of exploitation / escape / exploitation.
Evidence from The Salvation Army suggests that the majority of British nationals who have become victims of trafficking had been sleeping rough and/or had mental health issues or learning disabilities immediately prior to being trafficked. In the same report, accommodation was identified as the number one support need of victims of trafficking once they have escaped their situations and been identified to authorities.
Unfortunately, homeless people in the UK are often targeted by traffickers when they are seeking out support at day centres, winter shelters, Covid Hotels, soup runs, Food Banks as well as when they are living on the streets. Recruiters may offer work, money, accommodation, and sometimes alcohol or drugs. The promises turn out to be a lie.
According to Lys Ford, formerly of the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority and now helping The Clewer Initiative establish its Victim Support programme, the method of recruiting from shelters and homeless centres has remained constant over the last few years and shows no signs of abating. She explains: “Colleagues within the homeless sector have reported that there is an increase in the 'regularity' of recruitment, with individuals appearing on a regular basis at shelters for the purpose of recruiting. In fact, post Covid, we have heard from colleagues who work exclusively within the sector that the numbers of those requiring support has risen significantly.
“If you witness a homeless person being recruited for a role, you should ask yourself ‘why would a legitimate person recruit from a shelter?’ Even if you cannot understand the conversation that is going on between a visitor and a homeless person, because it is being conducted in a different language or at a distance, it is right to be suspicious.
“I believe the key reasons that people target homeless centres and shelters is the ease of access and the vulnerability of individuals. They also rely on the fact that front-line staff and volunteers will not notice their activity and that information will not be shared within individual shelters, geographical areas, or wider supporting agencies. Exploiters are confident that they can get away with it and that’s why they continue to recruit people in social action projects.”
Signs to look out for
It is important to be mindful of foreign nationals who target foreign speakers and conduct all their communication in another language. Sometimes foreign nationals arrive at a shelter, equipped with alcohol and drugs, which are often visible. They usually have a friendly demeanour, but all conversations are conducted in their native tongue, making it difficult for front line staff or volunteers to identify what is happening.
White British males, who are vulnerable, seem to be targeted over a longer time so there is an important window in which staff can share concerns with and support the potential victim before they are trapped.
Barriers to reporting
It can be hard to intervene if potential victims appear content with the situation. Sometimes a homeless person might willingly head out of the shelter with the recruiter and that can make it difficult for a front-line worker to stop them.
It is common for volunteers and staff to wait until people say they are a victim, rather than proactively approach them. This is understandable because it feels like a big deal to ask someone if they are being exploited or threatened. However, with suitable training, signposting and clarity about reporting, staff can become more confident to identify potential victims and recruiters and act decisively.
- Put up posters in different languages about the horrors of modern slavery, the rights of workers and what to do to access help. The Clewer Initiative has a range of resources for use in night shelters, food banks and drop ins to help raise awareness of the risk to homeless people of modern slavery. The range is called “Let’s Talk”
- Educate volunteers on what information to gather if they see something suspicious. Noting down the car registration number as a potential victim gets into a car or paying attention to the appearance of the recruiters can help statutory authorities build a better picture of what is going on in a particular area.
- Communicate the importance, priority, and urgency of sharing information with other colleagues so that intelligence is not lost or overlooked.
- All of this can be achieved through offering regular, bespoke training – look out for future news on our upcoming courses.
It is critical that organisations, such as the church, that work alongside homeless people know how to prevent exploitation, spot the signs of trafficking and know what to do if they have suspicions. Volunteers in church social action projects and members of our congregations are the eyes and ears of the community and must be equipped for this vital role.
If you are involved in running a social action project, look out for more news on courses on safeguarding or homelessness & modern slavery coming up in the new year.