By Andrea V. Watson/Defender Staff Reporter
Rashad Davis said he found himself in a situation at 16 years old where he was about to end up homeless, but a friend’s parent took him in.
Davis was fortunate enough to have someone else open up their home to him, but many Chicago youth, particularly African American youth, are not as fortunate.
According to officials who work with the homeless, there were more young people enrolled in Chicago public schools who were considered homeless than in previous years.
The 2013-14 academic school year had 22,144 homeless students, compared to the year before where there were 18,669. The final end of the year count is still pending, but so far, that is an 18.6 percent increase.
Nearly all of the homeless CPS students this past academic year were youth of color, said Anne Bowhay, spokeswoman at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Looking at that group even closer, she said about 85 percent were African American.
Based on CPS methods, homeless doesn’t only mean living in the streets. Its count includes students who are also “doubled up,” so that could be sleeping on a friend’s couch, Bowhay said. From the 22,144 counted this year, approximately 88 percent were living in a roommate situation. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, homeless students also included 2,508 youth who did not reside with either a parent or guardian.
Experts such as Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the Law Project at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said some of the blame can be put on the economy.
“We are looking at effects of foreclosures, job loss, people losing housing, and being able to maintain it,” Nix-Hodes said. Putting more resources towards affordable housing is a “good start” to finding a solution, she said.
Officials are also seeing an increase in the number of homeless families.
Susan Rayna Guererro, executive director at Beacon Therapeutic, said the organization works with families and there seems to be more.
“I think despite the number of homeless individuals going down, the number of families has gone up,” she said.
“I think we see an ongoing shift with shrinking of resources and families are the ones who get pushed further down the list.” Guererro said the nation is pushing to help veterans first. Families and unaccompanied youth are not the top priority when it comes to funding.
Michael Banghart, executive director of Renaissance Social Services, agreed, saying that there has been a federal push to get homeless veterans off the streets. He said more prevention education is needed and just a better system overall.
“The system isn’t as always connected as it should be,” Banghart said. “311 is a great resource and the homeless prevention call center is connected with that, but people who are homeless and need to get to the system’s referral system aren’t connected,” he said.
Banghart’s organization recently hosted a forum on homelessness in Chicago where former homeless people shared their experiences. The goal was to educate people on the prevalent issue. Banghart said there needs to be more affordable housing and programs, like his, to help those at risk of losing their home.
Arthur Barton, 56, (photo below), was homeless for 10 years. Instead of a warm bed, he spent his nights on the CTA Blue Line and on park benches. With the help of the Renaissance Social Services, he now has an apartment. In an interview with Banghart, Barton said he can’t even compare what his life used to be like.
“That was bad, this is good,” Barton said. “I have a steady income, a place to live, I pay my own bills, [I’m] always clean.” One day someone handed him the organization’s card and by then he was tired of living out of his backpack so he called, he said.
When it comes to homeless youth, those who enroll in school are usually living with a guardian or some sort, if not their parent. Davis, now 20, said he was able to finish high school, while staying with his friend’s family.
His school helped him purchase his cap and gown and even a suit for prom. His past is complicated he said, adding that it was just “a lot.” He lived with his parents, who he called “drug addicts,” until about 8-years-old, then his aunt adopted him. Davis said she would treat him differently from her own children and after awhile, he said he didn’t feel wanted or loved anymore.
“I started selling drugs, I did that for about five years,” he said. When his aunt found out, Davis stopped receiving money from her altogether, he said.
“I figured out when I got older that she adopted me for money,” Davis said, referring to the monthly check the state sent his aunt.
Last year, when he graduated, he found himself in a situation once again, where he needed to find a new home. His counselor referred him to the Night Ministries, a Chicago-based organization that has provided him with temporary shelter, offered him counseling and helped with job training.
“Night Ministries helped me a lot because they sit down [with you] to help sort out your issues,” Davis said. “They make sure you have solid ground.”
No one knows how many unaccompanied homeless youth there are because they try to stay out of sight, said Barbara Bolsen, vice president for strategic relationships at the Night Ministries.
“When you are 17, 18, 19 and don’t have a place to stay at night you try not to be noticed, you want to blend in because it will keep you safe,” Bolsen said.
“It is very difficult and dangerous to survive so you need a safe place,” Bolsen said, which is why they offer youth four different programs. One is an overnight shelter for 18 to 24 year olds, another is a daytime drop center, there is a four-month program for pregnant girls between the ages of 14 and 18, and a transitional program for those who are ready to transition into independent living.
Davis is doing that one now. He has been working at Jewel Osco for almost three months, he said. The Night Ministries worked with him through his learning disability, Dyscalculia, and taught him basic interviewing skills, he said. Davis said with his new confidence and the support he receives from the organization, he is thinking of his future.
“I am working to save and go to culinary school,” Davis said. “I have a real passion for baking and I want to learn how to bake in another country like Italy.”
*Besides contacting any of the organizations mentioned in the story, people can dial 311. The Chicago Department of Family and Support Services has six Community Service Centers, which are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. City residents who need assistance can drop in or schedule an appointment in advance.