Megan Lundstrom, Director of the Resilience Fund, giving a speech at the Fund’s launch last year. Image courtesy of Polaris Project.

Financial stability is vital for independence, but for many trafficking survivors, it can seem out of reach. A year ago last Spring, Polaris launched the Resilience Fund, to change that by providing crucial support and cash assistance to help survivors thrive. Catherine Chen, CEO of Polaris, recently spoke about key learnings from its first year during a meeting of our Advisory Board. We continue to explore Direct Giving, and we are grateful to support and learn alongside Polaris in their work to end sex and labor trafficking. ~ Jen Oakley, Program Partner

Survivors of human trafficking deserve the opportunity to thrive – economically, emotionally, physically, and socially. When Polaris first started the Resilience Fund, a Survivor Advisory Council was built and asked to define what it means to thrive. The council developed this definition: A survivor who is thriving, is a person who is securely rooted in their community; with sufficient material resources to be able to be in the present without grief, fear, or restraint from the past; and who has what they need to pursue their goals for the future. Economically thriving means having the freedom of unconstrained choices and possessing the capacity to dream.

Yet, too many trafficking survivors are stuck. Enduring the effects of their trafficking experience for sometimes decades after it ended, survivors are currently without support services that help them permanently overcome the vulnerabilities and barriers that led to their exploitation in the first place.

The Polaris Resilience Fund aims to be a catalyst to fill this service gap. A program designed and led by survivors, the Resilience Fund is a trust-based direct cash assistance program that will serve up to 200 participants during its pilot phase. Dispersing up to $500 per month, for up to 18 months, and providing access to a benefits counselor, the Fund’s goal is to support survivors to take back exactly what their traffickers stole from them – control over their own lives and the opportunity to thrive.

The Need for the Resilience Fund
The Resilience Fund is a survivor-led program that was launched following the publication of the National Survivor Study (NSS), a survivor-led research study that showed us just how important a role economic vulnerability plays both before trafficking and after exit. In some ways, the results of the NSS reinforced what we already knew– that while trafficking is often perceived as a crime that happens at random, it actually results from systemic economic barriers and injustices. In other ways, it opened our eyes to just how deeply survivors of trafficking continue to struggle after their exploitation ended. As leaders and allies in the anti-trafficking field, Polaris felt it is our responsibility to get support to survivors in the ways they say it is most needed and to showcase innovative ways we can change the systems that fail survivors now.

Some of the most striking findings from the NSS were about survivors’ financial vulnerability during their youth and after their trafficking ended. Eighty-three percent of respondents indicated they experienced poverty as a child, including not having enough to eat, a safe place to live, or clean clothes to wear. When asked about their income and employment after their trafficking experience ended, the findings were not promising. Although a majority of respondents were taking on either regular or both regular and temporary work, few were making ends meet. Forty-three percent of all survivors in the study said their annual income was under $25,000 a year, compared to 26% of the general US population.

“This year (10 years out) is the first year I am making thriving wages and can not only support my family but pay off debt and start saving.”- NSS participant

Tragically, while for many respondents much time had passed since the end of their exploitation, their economic situation had not changed. For survivors who had been out of their trafficking for seven years or more, 29% were still making under $25,000 per year.

These insights helped Polaris begin to understand the immense burden prolonged economic vulnerability has on the health and wellbeing of survivors, and the complex trauma many survivors experience when it comes to finances. In developing the Resilience Fund, Polaris’s goal was not only to provide cash assistance to help survivors get to a place of financial stability, but also get to a place where they could heal some of their trauma related to finances.

“I want to get to a place where we aren’t living paycheck to paycheck. Money is such a trigger. I feel I never have enough. I’m always behind on bills or just don’t pay them. I want to learn how to save and find stability for my family.”- NSS participant

Another barrier the NSS helped illustrate, and that the Resilience Fund is working to address, is the financial abuse many survivors faced during their trafficking and the impacts that has had on their ability to thrive after their exploitation. Fifty-three percent of NSS respondents said that their traffickers misused their identity for financial purposes during their trafficking, including purposes such as applying for government assistance, taking out credit cards and loans, and opening bank accounts. As a result, many survivors have poor credit or are unable to access the most basic tools that could help them reach financial stability.

Without outing themselves as a survivor of human trafficking, financial institutions will only view survivors’ financial records as ones that are untrustworthy or disqualifying for any assistance that might be sought. And even if survivors do identify themselves as a survivor of trafficking to a financial institution, many do not have reparative courses of action or policies in place to support survivors in getting the assistance they need. Further, identifying as a survivor to a financial institution poses its own risk, as it opens the door to facing judgment or victim-blaming.

“I had a lot of fraud committed on my bank accounts and for a while I was blacklisted from having my own bank account. When I got out of exploitation, my grandmother had to vouch for me at her bank and be a joint owner for years until I could prove that I could have the account on my own. Years after exploitation, there is still often fraud on my account and I often wonder if it is tied to my social security number or name on the dark web because my husband and family don’t ever have this many issues with fraud.”- NSS participant

Currently, there are 24 participants in the Resilience Fund’s inaugural cohort, each of whom began receiving disbursements in late 2023. At the time of enrollment, the average annual income of the cohort was just over $17,000 per year. Polaris conducted a voluntary survey of the participants after the first month of disbursements. Of the nine respondents in the survey, only two were able to meet their monthly expenses. The following month, eight participants completed the survey, and five had been able to meet their monthly expenses, with one participant even having enough to save for the next month.

“Because I’ve been able to pay my bills on time, my credit score has gone up.”- Resilience Fund participant

The Opportunity in the Resilience Fund
The need for the Resilience Fund and other programs like it is abundantly clear, and so is the potential opportunity. For those who have been systemically and therefore economically vulnerable, a trust-based direct cash assistance program is not just a financial lifeline, it’s an opportunity for healing at multiple levels.

On an individual level, direct cash assistance helps people meet their most basic needs, like food and housing. It could also help them to offload one of their secondary jobs, giving them more time and space to focus on their emotional and physical healing, family, or personal goals. It may give them enough margin to pursue medical treatments they need but could not otherwise afford. Perhaps most importantly, it gives people the opportunity to rebuild their sense of control and autonomy over their own lives. For some people who have experienced trafficking and financial abuse, this may be the first time in their lives they are able to make decisions on their own about their own needs and how to use their own money. When experiencing trafficking, these decisions are made by traffickers. After trafficking, these decisions are usually made by case workers. Direct cash assistance programs like the Resilience Fund give survivors the opportunity to exercise full autonomy.

“95% of my life is bad right now and this 5% overpowers that and gives me hope. That’s why this program is so important because it energizes us to keep going. Like a rechargeable battery, I am powered up and can get back in there.” – Resilience Fund participant

Opportunity for healing lies within the survivor community too. Many survivors report feeling isolated after trafficking, maybe because the service providers they have access to are not specific to trafficking survivors, or because they just do not know other survivors experiencing the same struggles, or know other survivors at all. Programs like the Resilience Fund provide survivors of trafficking a space to be understood, to share their experiences, and to foster a sense of belonging that may have been absent.

“The space was created for us to express our concerns in a transparent way without fear of repercussions. In most spaces I have to walk in fear about speaking up, but I didn’t feel like I had any fear, and the concerns got addressed.” – Resilience Fund participant

Finally, the survivor community has long been practicing mutual aid, working to ensure the basic needs of members in their community are met. The Resilience Fund is an opportunity for the anti-trafficking field to prioritize what survivors have been telling us they need – flexible resources and economic support. Following survivors’ lead, Polaris’s goal is to deliver this support through the Resilience Fund.

The Long-Term Impact of the Resilience Fund
Beyond the impact for individuals, which we can already see happening, one of the greatest opportunities we have with the Resilience Fund is to reduce and prevent human trafficking more broadly. As data has shown us, those who are economically vulnerable are also more vulnerable to trafficking. And for those who are able to exit, continued economic vulnerability after their experience only increases the risk of re-trafficking. By ensuring survivors and their families are economically thriving, we contribute to keeping them safe and invulnerable.

We also have the opportunity to strengthen and enhance the work survivors have been doing for each other for so long-supporting each other. Through the Resilience Fund, we are able to fuel and amplify their ability to care for each other and root themselves in a community of mutual support where they are not only economically stable, but they are thriving.

“When I feel like I’m in a better place, then I’m able to want to help the people I am in community with as well. That comes from my ability to not feel desperate because I can’t even afford my own life.”- Resilience Fund participant

There are currently more than 400 people on the Resilience Fund interest list, with thousands more in need. Both the need and the opportunity to help survivors of trafficking thrive are present in the Resilience Fund. So too is the opportunity to demonstrate allyship that prioritizes the voices and leadership of survivors. Organizations across the social justice spectrum can look to the Resilience Fund as an example of the power of trust in survivors, and of the innovation we can pursue that meets the needs survivors express. Collectively, our strongest and most impactful demonstration of leadership is listening to survivors and building bold solutions that meet the needs they identify.