New research released Wednesday shows, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 5 boys receiving services from Anchorage's shelter for homeless youths, reported being victims of sex trafficking, quantifying for the first time the prevalence of the problem among an especially vulnerable group in Alaska's biggest city.

For years, state officials have said stopping sex trafficking is a priority. But it has scarcely been studied in Alaska and nationally.

Of homeless youths surveyed in 10 cities around the country by researchers from Loyola University New Orleans, Anchorage had the highest reported prevalence of trafficking. Some 28 percent of young people surveyed met the legal definition of victims, compared to 19 percent in the survey as a whole.

The study defines human trafficking as "the exploitation of a person's labor through force, fraud or coercion."

The author of the study, Loyola professor Laura Murphy, visited 10 Covenant House sites around the country in cities including Detroit, New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky, interviewing homeless teenagers and young adults between 2014 and 2016.

On her trip to Anchorage in March 2016, Murphy interviewed 65 youths who were either staying at Covenant House or using the drop-in center. Murphy said the sample size was about average for the cities she visited.

Among the key findings in Anchorage:

* 27 percent of women interviewed were trafficked for sex and 17 percent of men.

* 43 percent of LGBTQ youths interviewed reported being trafficked for sex, in line with high national rates among the population. Some said they'd faced hiring discrimination for jobs that had pushed them into the sex market.

* 77 percent of youths trafficked for sex were homeless at the time it happened.

The research confirms a lot of what outreach workers already knew, said Josh Louwerse, youth engagement program coordinator at Covenant House. But because so much of sex trafficking happens out of sight — in rented hotel rooms and internet postings — it has been minimally studied, here and elsewhere.

The research illuminates the scope and contours of the problem, Louwerse said.

Anchorage was in part chosen as a study site because of its demographics and status as a hub city for the state, Murphy said in a phone interview Wednesday.

"We thought it might be a different kind of site," she said. "We were hoping to gather more data on Native American youth."

In Anchorage, victims told Murphy about surviving in a city far from their families in rural villages.

"A lot of them were young people very far from home," Murphy said. "They had traveled into Anchorage and couldn't go back home. Some of them also didn't want to go home."

Some had come for medical treatment, to get away from abuse or for educational or job opportunities that didn't pan out. Many reported selling sex to meet a basic need, like food, clothing or shelter.  

The stories Murphy heard weren't about being trafficked by major criminal organizations.

"These are circumstantial situations — youth who get exploited by someone who sees their vulnerability," she said.

In one recent case, prosecutors told the jury Troy Williams, accused of running an Anchorage sex-trafficking ring, targeted older Alaska Native teenagers who came from rough childhoods, had addiction problems and needed money.

Past prosecutions of Anchorage sex-trafficking operations have revealed pimps and traffickers preyed on homeless youths, including picking up young people on the fringes of the old Covenant House location itself.

Less attention is paid to labor trafficking, Murphy said. In Anchorage, those cases all involved forced drug dealing or criminal activity like working as a thief for a gang, according to the research. About 18 percent of those interviewed had been trafficked for labor.

"Young people were forced to sell or deliver drugs or to engage in other illicit activities without their consent," the findings said. 

Some had also been pushed into magazine sales crews, forced to work selling subscriptions door to door in a situation that verged on indentured servitude.

Trafficking is complex, said Louwerse.

Separate from the study, Covenant House staff knew of 20 young people who had been trafficked.

A check into their backgrounds found that each of them also had mental health issues, he said. In some cases, the person flies in for treatment from another town or village, is briefly hospitalized and then discharged "with nowhere to go," Louwerse said.

Josh Louwerse, an outreach case manager at Covenant House, searches for homeless youths in the Northway Mall in August 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive 2016)
Josh Louwerse, an outreach case manager at Covenant House, searches for homeless youths in the Northway Mall in August 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive 2016)

"At least a couple times a month we have someone leave (the Alaska Psychiatric Institute) and end up at Covenant House," Louwerse said. Some fall through the cracks between discharge and the shelter. Malls, transit centers, gas stations — they are all recruiting spots, he said.

Tackling a problem as complex as trafficking means getting to the root of the reasons homeless young people are so vulnerable to begin with, say Murphy and Louwerse: poverty, addiction, childhood trauma, mental health issues. Sometimes all at once, Louwerse said. But the research is a starting point.

"It tells people this is real, this is not made up," he said. "This is a problem."