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Justice Department to announce housing assistance grants for human trafficking survivors

The Justice Department is announcing housing assistance grants for survivors of human trafficking, which has been on the rise during the pandemic.

Administration officials have been troubled by both the uptick in cases and the coronavirus' impact on essential services for victims of modern-day slavery.

The Justice Department is announcing Tuesday it will award over $35 million in housing assistance grants to 73 non-profit organizations from 33 states across the country that provide housing and services to victims of human trafficking. The grants will allow the organizations to provide six to 24 months of transitional or short-term housing assistance to trafficking victims, including rent, utilities, and security deposits. The funding will also be used to help victims find employment, and receive job training and counseling.  

Although the grants are to be awarded to organizations through a merit-based system, senior administration officials say there are "no limitations" when it comes to which survivors are eligible to receive the housing assistance, including non-citizens.  

"They're treating everybody who comes through the door, " a senior official told CBS News. 

Over the next four years, the Trump administration plans to establish a national network of housing for human trafficking survivors. If victims need to testify in state where they were trafficked, for instance, they would have a safe place to stay where they can continue to receive specialized services. 

"The conditions brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic have made safe, supportive housing for survivors more important than ever," senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump said in a statement. President Trump's daughter, has taken a leading role in the administration's human trafficking initiatives.

In January, the president signed an executive order on combating human trafficking, which identified housing as a priority and included a directive on expanding housing options for victims of human trafficking. 

"Shelter is the number one most requested service for all crisis cases coming into the National Human Trafficking Hotline right now," according to a senior administration official. In speaking with law enforcement, victims' rights groups, and survivors, the administration has identified housing as "the top gap" in serving those who have escaped trafficking. "We know that safe and stable housing for survivors of human trafficking is a crucial component to overall stability for individuals who are really aggressively trying to reclaim their lives." 

"It's good that there is more federal funding for victim protection or survival re-empowerment. It's much needed," said Ambassador Mark Lagon, who served as the ambassador-at-large to combat human trafficking from 2007-2009 and is the former executive director of the watchdog group Polaris. "Housing is a really good early step in the process of people reclaiming their dignity. There are other parts, medical care, therapy, job training, that are needed as well. But this increase is a positive thing." 

Polaris has not embraced all of the Trump administration's work on human trafficking, and was among several anti-trafficking organizations that reportedly boycotted the White House summit on the issue earlier this year over administration policies that endanger immigrants, who some of the most prevalent victims of human trafficking.

In the past, the Justice Department and Health and Human Services Department have provided limited funding for survivors of human trafficking, Lagon said, and called the housing grant announcement a step in the right direction. "Singular focus on prosecuting perpetrators of human trafficking, but not serving the needs of traumatized, terrorized victims, has been a failing of multiple administrations. And this in and of itself is a good step." 

Senior administration officials told CBS News that in the coming months they plan to announce more service-focused grants for trafficking survivors. 

Although the initiative predates the coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic has exacerbated the issue of human trafficking and the need for secure housing. 

In June, Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said the number of human trafficking reports increased by 40% in the month following the shelter-in-place orders. 

"The economic upheaval, the fact that people are essentially trapped with their abusers, the desperate straits so many find themselves in, are conditions where trafficking thrive," Nancy McGuire Choi, CEO of Polaris, said in a statement. 

"There's really some eccentricities about this, things that you wouldn't think of, like self-isolation. A lot of these survivors are isolating with their traffickers," a senior administration official told CBS News. During the pandemic, "people's lack of access to food or other essentials makes them more reliant on their traffickers. Online sex solicitation has gone through the roof because of people being isolated, people being more online, those types of things." 

The pandemic has also given rise to new concerns about health services for victims. 

"There are special needs now beyond the already substantial traumatized situation of human trafficking victims," Lagon said. "If you are to give people housing, they need medical care, including COVID, because they're likely to have had limited medical care and have probably been in close quarters with people who have a chance of having been exposed to COVID." 

Administration officials say grant proposals were submitted prior to the outbreak, so there are not funds allocated specifically for COVID testing, treatment, and precautions. They said, "This funding wasn't planned on behalf of COVID, but it's more important because of it." 

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