Je’Brial Lee talks about her years in metro Atlanta’s sex trade the way one talks about a day at the office, only she was posing in sexy outfits, naked inside cages and performing untold sex acts.
“For me, it was business, easy money in my hand,” she says matter-of-factly.
For three years — from ages 14 to 17 — Je’Brial said the man who lured her into the business gave her a place to stay when her family rejected her because she is gay. He was family.
But when he added recruit to her list of duties, that was too much.
“I started seeing me in him,” she said.
When she refused, Je’Brial said he started to beat her.
“That’s when I ran and I kept running from bridge to bridge to bridge,” she said.
Je’Brial is one of more than 3,300 homeless youths in the metro Atlanta area. One of five of which have been trafficked.
Given the recent sting by Gwinnett County police in which 23 men were arrested for pretending to be teenagers online to lure minors and have sex with them in exchange for money, that might not surprise you. But it ought to worry you. A lot.
According to a recent survey of youths who had engaged in the commercial sex trade, 68 percent had done so while homeless.
The finding was part of a dual study by researchers at the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project, which drew on interviews with 911 homeless youths across 13 cities, including Atlanta, where homeless youths accessed services through Covenant House.
Covenant House operates the largest network of residences and community service centers for homeless youths, reaching more than 46,000 every year in 30 cities across the U.S. and five other countries.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youths like Je’Brial were disproportionately affected. Though they accounted for just 20 percent of the respondents interviewed, LGBTQ youths accounted for 38 percent of the sex trafficking victims.
Overall, 17 percent of the young women interviewed were trafficked for sex; 13 percent of the young men interviewed were trafficked for sex; and 11 percent were trafficked for labor.
Allison Ashe, executive director of Covenant House Georgia, said the agency has known since its inception that many of the youths who come to it are survivors of trafficking, but this is the first time it’s been able to get some hard data around that.
Researchers went into 10 Covenant House sites and interviewed youths about their history and consistently across all 10 sites, found that one in five youths had been trafficked, she said.
“Here in Atlanta, over 20 percent had been trafficked and 30 percent said they had been sexually exploited or exchanged sex for food and a place to stay,” she said.
Je’Brial, now 19, said she was living under a bridge near Tri-Cities High School when a social worker at the school told her about Covenant House.
She arrived five weeks ago hoping for a new start. Maybe singing or something else creative.
Funny thing is Je’Brial knew she was being exploited but she didn’t consider it sex trafficking.
“At the time, it was for a good cause,” she said. “I finally had a family that accepted me for who I am.”
In the end, she realized sadly that acceptance had a huge price.
Covenant House, she said, is different. Here she is accepted not just for her body.
“I’m a human, someone with feelings and goals,” she said. “They want to help me reach those goals.
Covenant House serves primarily 18- to 24-year-olds and provides everything from street outreach to crisis shelter to long-term independent living.
Considering there are 3,300 homeless youths in the Atlanta area and 1,000 of those are being sexually exploited on any given night, Ashe said, there needs to be a more coordinated effort to solving the crisis.
Instead, she said, “the trafficking and homeless youth movements seem to operate in silos. It’s really important to get these two groups to work together. Any time we can keep kids off the street, we’re keeping them away from the risk of this happening to them.”
The need is particularly acute among boys like Je’Brial, who prefers the pronoun she.
Among Atlanta boys interviewed for the study, 13 percent were trafficked slightly higher than the national average of 11 percent.
“Of our LBGQT youth, 38 percent had been trafficked for sex,” Ashe said.
As high as those numbers might seem to the rest of us, the only surprising thing about the study as far as Ashe is concerned is how low they were.
She believes there are far more kids impacted than would admit it.
“It’s probably an undercount,” she said. “It’s still something that is hard for kids to talk about. It’s startling that that many have been trafficked, but it’s still most likely an undercount.”
If the Gwinnett news is any indication, Ashe is probably right.
But she isn’t waiting to find out. Covenant House is conducting a feasibility study to open more beds once it gets funding.
“Our goal is to get them off the street before they are trafficked,” she said. “Kids have a right to grow up in a safe, secure environment. For me, the point of this study is to help people make the connection between trafficking and homelessness.
“A lot of money and public will are given to trafficking education. We need that same public will around reducing youth homelessness.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.