5 Questions with…STOP THE TRAFFIK’s Community Data Analyst

This week, we chatted with our Community Data Analyst, Tom Madden. Based in Manchester, Tom works closely with partners across the city to identify and eliminate exploitation in the homeless and rough sleeping community.

Through collecting and analysing information that can be shared with multiple different audiences, he is helping to better understand and ultimately reduce the vulnerabilities that lead homeless people into exploitative situations. In this segment of ‘5 Questions with…‘ Tom explains the variant factors that put the homeless population at an increased risk of trafficking – and provides some sustainable solutions for a future without them. 

QUESTION 1: Much of your work in Greater Manchester has involved working with people who are rough-sleeping or homeless. What is it that makes this demographic particularly vulnerable to modern slavery? 

This can be difficult to answer if you don’t know the people you are talking about when you say ‘homeless ‘or ‘rough sleeping’.  

Homelessness is really a symptom of a lot of other underlying issues which haven’t been addressed, often originating in childhood. Different factors like having unmet mental health needs, unsupported substance needs, a history of abuse and trauma, experience with the justice system, poverty or not having/being cut off from a family support network can all make it difficult to sustain a tenancy or result in someone being forced out of their home. 

So when there are conversations about ‘homeless people’, what we are really talking about a group of people that often have with multiple and complex, mostly unaddressed support needs who have been ignored by social support systems until their situations have deteriorated so severely that their lives have destabilised and they are left without a roof over their heads. 

When someone becomes ‘homeless’ there are a few ways traffickers will look to preying on vulnerabilities I’ve already mentioned to exploit people. They might offer them a place to stay in return for collecting the money made from begging or drug trafficking. Or they might pose as friendly, romantic or parental figures to gain someone’s trust then manipulate them to into shoplifting, begging or sex working. 

The brutal reality is that people with multiple unmet support needs who have been exploited, are more likely to become exploiters themselves, seeing it as their only means of survival.

Homelessness and exposure to risk

Once people have lost their permanent home, particularly for single men and women, they are exposed to further risks to their wellbeing and safety. Individuals are often forced to stay with friends, family or acquaintances to have a roof of their head which can leave them in potentially abusive, dangerous or exploitative situations. Being housed in bedsits, night shelters or other types of temporary/emergency accommodation, individuals will be surrounded by people with other complex support needs which can quickly exacerbate and escalate their own issues. People who may have only engaged with mild drug use might be introduced to harder substances like crack or heroin. People experiencing less severe mental health issues might be targeted with vicious physical or sexual assaults leaving them traumatised or experiencing PTSD on top of the issues which had already put them in crisis. For women in particular, many will feel pressured to enter into abusive relationships for protection, as they fell vulnerable when on their own on the streets or while couch surfing. Many people will go through a combination of the above, derailing their journey towards stability and independence even further. 

Within a few months of being stuck in the limbo of the UK’s chronically underfunded homeless support services and housing system, the issues which left people homeless in the first place often remain unresolved and many are left with much bigger challenges to overcome than they did when they had when they first lost their homes.  

Once a person’s vulnerabilities have been exacerbated in any of these ways there is even more for traffickers to prey upon and leverage to make a profit. Worse, the brutal reality is that people with multiple unmet support needs who have been exploited, are more likely to become exploiters themselves, seeing it as their only means of survival. This perpetuating a cycle of exploitation which has destroyed tens of thousands of people’s lives in the UK. 

The sad reality in the UK is that when people are left in dire need of money, with little to no opportunity to make it through conventional means and nowhere to live, there will always be exploitation. 

QUESTION 2: How has Covid-19 exacerbated the situation for the homeless community? 

Covid-19 has exacerbated many of the vulnerabilities experienced by people experiencing homelessness in a few key ways. Obviously, the number of redundancies and hit to many businesses has increased the level of financial insecurity for millions in the UK, particularly people relying on their next paycheck to keep their heads above water. Manchester local authorities have seen a rise in people presenting as homeless, which could reflect the financial impact of the UK being forced to going into lockdown. 

In order to protect people who are homeless in supported accommodation where self-isolation was not possible or who were rough sleeping, local authorities have launched a nationwide rehousing programme to accommodate people without a fixed address in empty hotels. In these hotels many staff had not previously worked with people experiencing homelessness and were unfamiliar with some of the safeguarding needs of individuals with complex support needs. This created potential vulnerabilities to trafficking. STOP THE TRAFFIK had reports of hotels being targeted by potential exploiters looking to prey upon vulnerable individuals for the purposes of exploitation, which is common wherever you have such high concentrations of vulnerable people. To combat this, we offered remote training to hotel staff, so they would know what to do when they spotted the signs of exploitation.

Lockdown and substance use

Another factor which has exacerbated risks has been the profound impact of lockdowns across the world on the UK drug supply. It is an unfortunate reality that many people who do not have a fixed address will have or develop substance dependencies as a result of their situation, and these dependencies did not go away because the country went into lockdown. Commonly used substances like spice, heroin and crack all became much more difficult to source in the country due to a combination of factors, resulting in prices increasing and exacerbating debt bondages as a result. It has also meant that people have had no alternative to using low quality or substitute substances with severe adverse health effects to meet their substance needs, and that some people have picked up new addictions where the substances they depended on were not available.

Vanishing support services

On top of these challenges, the virus meant that most outreach services had to stop in their tracks and were unable to continue their services. This has meant that many of the most vulnerable people they were supporting were instantly shut off from support, especially where they didn’t have access to technology to be able to engage with online services. 

Exacerbating the above, lockdown also meant that some ways of making money like begging or sex work stopped being viable as city centres became less crowded and the demand for sex work went down with people staying home. This made all the problems above worse and put people into even more precarious and dangerous situations as they needed to find other ways of making money – leaving them vulnerable to exploitation as a result. 

QUESTION 3: At STOP THE TRAFFIK, we often talk about our community-focused approach. Can you explain a little bit about why community is so valuable in the fight against trafficking? 

It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to support any individual through all the bumps and hurdles they will experience in their lives. Whether you are in a leafy village like where I grew up in Surrey or South Manchester where I live now, you won’t get anywhere unless you acquire training or education giving you the skills to get opportunities for a stable employment and all the food, safety, mental health support, friendship and physical healthcare required for a full and healthy life. That all happens at the community level. 

At STOP THE TRAFFIK, we value community enough to recognise that we can’t do this all on our own, no matter how good our intentions are.

At STOP THE TRAFFIK, we value community enough to recognise that we can’t do this all on our own, no matter how good our intentions are. So we partner with organisations to better understand the exploitation taking place in their communities so that we can all work collaboratively to come up with preventative interventions. What that often looks like for us is partnering with community-based organisations to run our awareness campaigns. As much research as we do, we will never have half the insight into the lives of people we are trying to support as people who have been working or living in their communities all their lives. The insights of these always inspirational organisations and individuals is what allows us to ensure our objectives, approach, and messaging for a campaign always remain relevant to the communities we are trying to impact. Without being community based in this way we would never stand a chance of changing people’s perceptions of exploitation. 

Involving the community in policy and service design

Being community-led is also crucial in policy and service design. No expert will ever know the positives and negatives of a service better than people who have been through it. Whether that is people who have been homeless trying to navigate the housing system or people with experience of the justice system complying with their probation the real experts are the people with a lived experience of the issues affecting the lives of service users.

Therefore, it is important not just to be community based in our work but also community-led  in the planning and provision of inclusive and accessible spaces for people with lived experience of exploitation. I have seen first-hand the impact that an outreach worker can have when they tell someone who was rough sleeping at the time that they used to be in exactly the same position as them and that if they just engage with the service then they can get out of it too. This approach is amazing and we need to see a lot more of it, particularly across the anti-trafficking sector. 

QUESTION 4: What are some of the most rewarding/challenging parts of your role? 

As I mentioned the most rewarding part of my work by far is all the amazing people I get to meet and work with. I am so lucky to have got the chance to work with so many incredible people with such diverse experiences and personal stories. It is honestly such a privilege. The amount I have learned in the year I’ve been at STOP THE TRAFFIK is completely mind boggling, when I let it sink in. 

The most challenging part of my role is a tossup between trying to keep my bumbling disorganisation from uprooting all my carefully laid and very important plans, and trying not to be so cynical and cross with the world all the time (which can be a challenge sometimes in this job!). 

QUESTION 5: You’ve been a long way away from your team since you started, which makes you an expert in remote working. Do you have tips for those that might be struggling with remote working because of Covid-19? 

With my role in Manchester, and the rest of the STOP THE TRAFFIK team in other parts of the country and the world, working remotely is nothing new! But things have definitely changed under lockdown.

The effects of the lockdown have been difficult for everyone. I have been incredibly lucky that I have kept my job, been able to work for home in a supportive household of great people and that everyone I care about in my life has been safe and well (touch wood!). With that said, at points in the lockdown I have had big ups and downs which have made it difficult to keep productive and proactive in looking after my mental health. I don’t really feel I am the person to be giving advice on how to work away from my colleagues due to how challenging I have found it. All I can say is that on good days the things that have helped me have been setting up regular calls with my team even if we’ve not got much to work through, keeping the structure in my day, eating well and trying to be easy on myself when I’m not getting as much done as I feel like I should be. 

For more insight into the work Tom is doing in Greater Manchester, read STOP THE TRAFFIK’s report on Homelessness here

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