NSF Funds WPI-led Research Team to Help New York City Homeless Youths at Risk for Human Trafficking
A research team led by professors at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will use data analytics and optimization to determine the most efficient use of shelters and services for homeless youths in New York City. Their goal is to disrupt the “supply side” of human trafficking networks by reducing the vulnerability of those most at risk of exploitation.
Renata Konrad, associate professor at the Foisie Business School at WPI, has received a $535,565 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Special Initiatives program for the three-year project. Andrew Trapp, also associate professor, is a co-principal investigator on the project. The study will build on previous research led by Konrad using analytics to develop tools to understand and address human trafficking networks.
“To disrupt human trafficking, we need to look at the beginning of the supply chain—at-risk homeless youths,” Konrad said. “The question is, can we stop the trafficking process before it happens with shelters and services for homeless youths?”
Konrad noted the challenge associated with estimating the number of homeless youths in New York City, and said that not all of those who are homeless will be trafficked or exploited.
The office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the mayor’s Youth Homelessness Task Force, and the Coalition for Homeless Youth have committed to support the project.
Under the grant, the researchers will first design surveys and gather information about the numbers and needs of homeless youths ages 16 to 24 in New York City. Then the researchers will use that data to inform mathematical models regarding the prevalence of youth homelessness and use optimization to project how the capacity of shelters and
services could be deployed to cost-effectively meet those needs. Finally, the researchers will recommend how best to roll out public resources.
“The models we develop can be used to optimize the benefit-cost ratio,” Trapp said. “The costs relate to providing food and shelter, including building shelters, as well as medical and psychological care, and employment training. And the benefits are rehabilitated lives, less time incarcerated, more productive jobs, and tax revenues going back to society because people are having more stable jobs.”
Others on the project are Meredith Dank, research professor, and Andrea Hughes, research associate at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Kayse Maass, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University; and graduate students in data science at WPI and criminal justice at City University of New York.
About Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a purpose-driven community of educators and researchers, has been the global leader in project-based learning for 50 years. An impact maker for higher education and the world, WPI prepares confident, competent problem solvers with a project-based curriculum that immerses students in authentic, real-world experiences.