'Survival sex' lures homeless teens into prostitution

'Survival sex' lures homeless teens into prostitution »Play Video

EUGENE, Ore. -- Her hands shoved into her pockets, a young woman shares a little-discussed detail about life on the streets: Homeless teens are becoming prostitutes, both willingly and unwillingly.

"I do know some friends who do do it. They think it's the only way they can survive, you know, take care of themselves," she said, adding the girls tell her a night in a hotel is better than a night in a tent.

She did not want to be identified but said she's propositioned often.

Prostitution is prevalent, according to the people who work with homeless youth in Lane County.

"It was shocking to me when I first started to work here," said Chris Mirabal, program manager of Looking Glass New Roads. Mirabal said many homeless teens are too scared or ashamed about their experiences with prostitution, so it's difficult to say how many teens are involved.  Enough have come forward for him to consider it a serious problem. 

Homeless teens are easy targets, said Mirabal. They're in vulnerable situations, not knowing where their next meal will come from or where they will stay at night. Some have substance abuse problems or a history of sexual abuse.  

"There are a lot of stereotypes around prostitution," said Mirabal. "They expect there to be a pimp and a prostitute and it to look a certain way.  A lot of times it doesn't look that direct. Sometimes a young person won't know someone is making money from them."    

Mirabal said the most common is called "survival sex."  Typically, a person will offer a homeless youth a place to stay and expect sexual activity in return.

Sometimes, said Mirabal, the teen is not aware of the arrangment until after they've stayed with a person for a few days or weeks.

"They wanted to have, like me have sex with her, while I'm staying on their couch, as part of rent," said a young homeless man who wanted to be identifed as Brain. "I was like, I can't do that.  I'm sorry."

Brain is 21 years old.  He acknowledges his age and gender made it easier for him to say no and leave that situation.

"Some people are like, I don't want to go on the streets. Me, I'm fine with it. I can survive," he said.

Currently, there are two day shelters dedicated to homeless youth.  Looking Glass New Roads is open Monday through Friday.  Hosea Youth Services is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons.  

There is only one overnight shelter dedicated to homeless youth,  Looking Glass' Station 7, which has fewer than 20 beds.

Homeless advocates said another, larger overnight shelter would help cut the problem, but it is not the only solution.

"Right away, they have an option," said Mike Langley, the program director of Hosea Youth Services, said of a shelter.         

The situations, particularly survival sex, would decrease, said Mirabal.

"I think if people's basic needs are being met, they won't feel desperation that leads them to situations like that," he said.  "I think it starts with parents who protect their children, take care of their children."