Life as a Homeless Youth
When it comes to homeless youth the facts are simple, services in the City of Chicago are falling far behind the need. A survey of Chicago public school students from 2009/10 revealed 3,682 children who identified as being homeless and in need of shelter. In contrast there are approximately 189 beds for homeless youth (ages 18-25) funded by the City of Chicago. In 2010, 4,775 homeless youth were turned away from youth shelters for lack of room. To be clear, that was 4,775 instances where homeless youth sought shelter and were unable to find it. To date there are only 10 percent of the beds needed to provide safe shelter and supportive programs for the estimated number of Chicago's homeless youth.
For the 2009/2010 education year the Chicago Public School (CPS) system reported 3,682 unaccompanied homeless youth, (a 26 percent increase over the previous school year). The total number of students reported as homeless was 15,027 (a 20 percent increase over the previous school year). At a time when the numbers of homeless youth enrolled in CPS are increasing, school administrators are cutting the positions dedicated to serving these children.
Across Chicago there is a strong collaboration of groups who advocate on the issue of homelessness; however, the voices campaigning for the needs of homeless youth are in the minority. As is often the case, this minority voice is not given the attention equal to the importance of its cause. While it is true that the majority of homeless in Chicago are above the age of 25, it is also true that homeless youth (24 years and younger) are far more vulnerable. For a teen living on the streets survival is the number one priority and survival means taking advantage of the few options that exist. Without resources, theft and drug dealing are obvious alternatives; however, far darker options are all too common. The prevalence of survival sex and prostitution is the horrible reality for too many children living on the streets of Chicago.
Because of this gross deficiency in services for homeless youth it is safe to assume that many of the underserved youth of today will be the homeless adults of tomorrow. As they grow into adulthood they will carry with them the emotional and psychological scars inflicted on them during their formative years.
Amidst this bad news there is at least one hopeful movement. The H.E.L.L.O. (Homeless Experts Living Life's Obstacles) meets every Tuesday night at Chicago's Broadway youth Center. H.E.L.L.O. is a collaborative effort put together with partnerships from Howard Brown Health Center, The Night Ministry, and The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Every week homeless youth from across the city meet to discuss insights, troubles, and strategies concerning being young and homeless. Active for seven years, the group is heavily focused on developing realistic policies that will eliminate the road blocks that each of them faces every day.
After years of sharpening their issues and devising practical, street-smart solutions, H.E.L.L.O caught the attention of Chicago's former Mayor, Richard M. Daley, at a 2009 public budget hearing. Moved by the group's proposals, Mayor Daley followed the youth presenters into the hallway to talk. The youth did not waste their opportunity; they asked to meet him at his office to present their best ideas.
In February 2010 Mayor Daley met with more than twenty homeless youth. Impressed by their frank reasoning and achievable goals the Mayor committed to putting the weight of his office behind their agenda. As a result the Chicago Homeless youth Task Force was born. Made up of government officials, leaders from various homeless youth agencies, social advocates, and of course homeless youth, the Taskforce is charged with tackling the most pressing issues. These include: sufficient access to safe shelter, education at both the high school and college levels, transportation, employment, and drop-in shelters/street outreach.
In April 2011, the Taskforce published its first report. There has been progress. The city has added an additional 40 youth dedicated beds to the homeless system, (although this is still far short of the need). There has also been progress on greater access to public transportation. Still, the issues of housing, education, and jobs continue to languish.
Working with social service providers, the city has made some positive progress, but there is still much work to be done. The hope is that the city's new leader, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, will pick up where Mayor Daley left off and use his considerable power of persuasion to implement the critical programs necessary to keeping Chicago's most vulnerable youth safe.
Jim LoBianco is a native Chicagoan who has spent the last twenty years working on issues of poverty and homelessness. Jim's career has included positions in nonprofit agencies as well as city government. From 2004