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February 12, 2017

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: New homeless shelter for young people aims to fill gap

By Mark Brown, columnist

The bright-eyed staff of Covenant House was assembled early one morning last week and set to get to work helping homeless young people.

Their new facility — a drop-in daytime shelter inside Lawson House, the former YMCA building at 30 W. Chicago Ave. — had just opened for business.

It is the first entry into Chicago for Covenant House International, one of North America’s largest providers of youth homeless services, and except for a glitch with the time clock, everything seemed ready.

There was a kitchen to serve breakfast and lunch, lockers for storage of personal belongings, a computer lab, showers and quiet spaces for an array of counseling services.

Maybe more important, the young workers gave off a welcoming vibe, in keeping with the “open door, open intake policy” considered the organization’s hallmark.

The main thing missing was the homeless young people themselves, only a few of whom found their way to the location in the opening days.

That will change quickly as word gets out. We can help with that.

Unfortunately, Chicago has no shortage of homeless youth and no abundance of places to help them.

Nichole Lamorgese (left), a case manager for Covenant House Illinois, helps a young homeless man check into his new locker, one of many services offered at the organization's new daytime drop-in center inside Lawson House, 30 W. Chicago Ave. | Photo provided

Nichole Lamorgese (left), a case manager for Covenant House Illinois, helps a young homeless man check into his new locker, one of many services offered at the organization’s new daytime drop-in center inside Lawson House, 30 W. Chicago Ave. | Photo provided

Last year’s annual city homeless census tallied 500 homeless individuals ages 16 to 24 living in shelters or on the street on a given day.

If you add in an estimate of those who are doubled up or “couch-surfing” in other people’s homes, that number grows to more like 2,000. Yet there are few organizations specifically working with the age group.

“I didn’t know so many people went through this,” said Jeremy Colon, 20, of Humboldt Park, who found out otherwise after his mom lost her job and they were evicted from their apartment and left homeless.

Now he’s got a room in what’s called a transitional housing program run by La Casa Norte. He knows others aren’t as lucky.

Among them is Marissa Avila, 20, who told me she is now staying in an overnight adult shelter after several months of sleeping beneath bridges, under porches and inside abandoned buildings.

The unmet need is what persuaded New York-based Covenant House, which says it serves 50,000 homeless youth at 30 shelters in the United States, Canada and Latin America, to make Chicago the site of its first new location in 17 years.

Covenant House Illinois will specifically target 18-to-24-year-olds, that difficult age when young adults must begin to find their own way in the world and sometimes falter.

Joseph Mole, the organization’s executive director, said many homeless youths have been thrown out of their homes, often because they are LGBTQ, involved in a gang or too old for foster care. Others are runaways or “throwaway” kids whose parents don’t fulfill their responsibilities.

“A lot of kids are fleeing situations that are not safe, such as an abusive family situation,” Mole said.

When they lose housing, they become more vulnerable to the predators who would enlist them in gangs, drugs or prostitution.

On the flip side, they also are at an age where they have a better chance to put their lives back on track if somebody can reach them in time to help them find their way.

All that many of them need is someone who will “walk alongside them,” show that they care and be their advocate, Mole said.

“When a kid realizes their dreams can still happen, you’re in a whole different ballgame at that point,” said Mole, a veteran of several local social service agencies.

There is one more important thing missing from Covenant House at this time. It has no overnight beds, which may be the greatest need.

That is expected to change when the organization opens a 20-bed interim housing shelter later this year at a to-be-determined location. Another 20 beds will be added at Lawson House following a planned renovation of the building.

The drop-in shelter is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Overnight shelters typically put their homeless guests out by 7 a.m., and the idea is to give the young people a safe place to go during the day.

Spread the word. There’s new help in town.

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