Human trafficking survivors share how homelessness leads to sexual exploitation

Panelists recall stories of empathy and recovery at Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking forum.

Chelsea Olsen has lived through the darkness of human trafficking and homelessness.

As a child, she was abused by her father, who was addicted to drugs. Her mother was an absent figure in Olsen’s life as a single mother. From ages 17 to 20, Olsen lived on the streets of Kitsap County, one year of which she spent living in a tent.

Amid this isolation, she met the man who trafficked her, sexually exploited her and got her addicted to heroin.

“I didn’t really have anywhere to turn,” she said. “… The only reason I got out of trafficking was because I got sober.”

Olsen has been sober for six-and-a-half years.

Because of the journey, Olsen now dedicates her work to advocacy and support for other human trafficking survivors.

Dozens of community members, public officials and resource advocates gathered at the Federal Way Coalition Against Human Trafficking forum as survivors shared their stories on Jan. 16 at Federal Way City Hall.

This year’s forum focused on the intersectionality of human trafficking and homelessness — two traumatizing situations that are often put in silos and not addressed together, explained FWCAT forum moderator Doug Baxter Jenkins.

Formed in 2011, FWCAT aims to educate and engage the Federal Way community through the voices of survivors and provide each person a role in ending human trafficking, said nonprofit executive director Claudia Lawrence.

Speakers on the three-panelist forum included Olsen, along with Carl Covington, of Bellevue, and Rebekah Fondon, who shared her story of human trafficking survival at last year’s event.

Traffickers often lure victims by promises of a home, food, clothes, money, love and safety — the basic necessities of survival, Covington explained.

When you’re already struggling to have your basic needs met, “the easy way out is when a trafficker offers [those necessities]” he said. “Or so it seems at the time.”

When needs are met, victims tend to develop a sense of security with their trafficker, Olsen said, and then the sexual exploitation becomes a way to survive.

The daily trauma of violation morphs your mindset: “It’s not wanting to, but feeling like you have to,” Olsen said of the trafficking.

“It was this deep hole … I had to keep using [heroin] more and more and more to deal with that and being abused by my trafficker,” Olsen said.

Relationship building is the way out, she said.

“We want to look away and if we look, it’s not there,” she said of society’s mentality, adding that recognizing someone as a human is a way to practice empathy. “It’s being able to see someone for who they are and their spirit, not just for their circumstances.”

Human trafficking and homelessness disproportionately affects boys and girls in foster care, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and women and girls of color, Olsen said.

“Trafficking is preying on the weak,” Covington said. “ … I saw the dysfunction and malfunction that it does to a person.”

Covington, now 45, grew up in Hawaii and experienced homelessness when he and his older sister lived on the streets of California, witnessing his mother become a victim of sex trafficking.

“I spent more of my years as a young man living in a women’s shelter than in a home,” he said.

He grew up with a sense of “Why me?”, yet also wondered where the help and resources were for people in this situation.

From their experiences, Covington said he and his fellow panelists believe sharing their stories is a way to find, highlight and work to fix the injustices.

“We still take out time and try to advocate for what’s right, stand up for what’s right, say what’s right and speak our truth and reach out to those who are still out there lost,” he said.

In order to target the intersection, he said, society must place the problem of the two topics, intrinsically tied together, in front of themselves.

“There comes a point where you have to show some type of empathy for the situation,” Covington said.

Empathy was a recurring theme of the forum’s conversation, whether a panelist said they wished they had been shown more of it, or as a way for others to support survivors.

Rebekah Fondon, who grew up in and was sex trafficked out of Federal Way, now trains health care professionals to look for trafficking red flags in order to help those in need who may not be able to speak up for themselves quite yet.

These red flags may include These red flags could show in the form of tattoo branding on the skin, neglected dental or medical health while outside appearances are up kept, paying with wads of cash or an individual speaking for someone who is capable of speaking for themselves, among many others.

“If they would’ve been able to identify the red flags, I had all of them, they would’ve been able to say ‘Are you OK? Do you need help?’” Fondon said of the many systems that failed her when she was being exploited.

There is also preventative work that can be done at home, the panelists shared, such as practicing genuine, unconditional love for a child. Parents should allow their kids to have a voice and feel valued for all that they are.

As Olsen dove into her work with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, she heard her story over and over again — different people and different cities — but always the same situation she had been in years before.

“I learned it wasn’t my fault,” she said.

Now, she wants to be a light for young women and men to show them you, too, can get out of the darkness.

Resources in and near King County:

Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking (FWCAT): A local nonprofit dedicated to educated and engaging community members to end human trafficking.

Federal Way Day Center: A homeless day shelter in Federal Way offering laundry facilities, showers, kitchen access, phone and computer resources, and more.

Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST): Provides pathways to freedom, safety and hope for those who have experienced the sex trade. Hotline: 206-451-7278

Seattle Against Slavery: A grassroots coalition dedicated to fighting against sex and labor trafficking.

Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS): Facilitates the process for individuals who have been harmed by prostitution through survivor-centered, trauma-informed recovery services. Hotline: 206-853-6243

The Genesis Project Seattle: Provides a drop-in day center and emergency shelter for female survivors of sex trafficking.

YouthCare: Seattle-based nonprofit connecting necessary services with runaway and homeless youth ages 12-17 . Hotline: 1-800-495-7802

The Breakfast Group Seattle: A nonprofit organization of African-American men dedicated to mentoring and addressing the challenges of at-risk youth of color, with focus on black males.

Cowlitz Indian Tribe resources: The Cowlitz Tribe Pathways to Healing Program honors traditional values while providing a holistic approach to inform and heal Native American and Alaska Native families affected by violence.

Cocoon House: Everett-based nonprofit organization providing outreach, and short term and long term housing for the homeless and at-risk youth.

The eighth annual FWCAT Break the Chains of Human Trafficking 5K Run/Walk Fundraiser will be held at 9:30 a.m. May 16 at The Commons mall.

For more information, to register or volunteer, visit FWCAT’s Break the Chains fundraiser page.

Human trafficking survivors share how homelessness leads to sexual exploitation