From trafficked to trafficker: youth homelessness and sexual exploitation in Alaska (For The Guardian)

(This story is part of a larger project by The Guardian that looks at homelessness in the western United States. Ash Adams made the photos. )

Heidi Ross was a senior in high school when she hitchhiked from the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River into the city, leaving a dark childhood behind.

“I didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said of that day, around 20 years ago. “I had the clothes on my back.”

After she arrived, without a way to pay rent, she soon found herself trading sex for a place to stay. Next she traded sex for drugs. Using sex to get things she needed made her feel powerful, she said. At 21, she went to work for a pimp who promised to take care of her.

“It felt strange at first, because I was so used to taking care of myself,” she said. “It felt good. It felt like a piece was missing and it had finally come back.”

Ross said sex work became her “lifestyle”. Eventually, however, she would be the one exploiting young men and women as adrift as she was on that ride into Anchorage.

Sexual exploitation has been an undercurrent of the state’s male-dominated frontier culture since Russian explorers first came to the region, and men flocked to the state during the Gold Rush. Law enforcement, prosecutors and victim advocates have long suspected the state has a high rate of sex trafficking, but the problem has been largely unstudied. Recently, though, a small study of trafficking among homeless youth offered some data to support these suspicions.

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ANCHORAGE, ALAKSA – MAY 6, 2017: “I’ve never had a tattoo done professionally,” Heidi Ross says. They were all done on the streets or in prison, she explains. This one, which reads “For the Love of It” with two money symbols, was done partially on the street and partially in prison. It references both the love of money but also the love of life as a sex worker. Ross got the first part of the tattoo when she was 24 and running her own escort service, and then the dollar signs while in prison. Ross was trafficked at a young age and then eventually ran her own trafficking business, but after almost 2 decades and 36 arrests, she says she’s done, changing her name, and going to school, ready to start a new life with her 7-year-old son./ASH ADAMS