Chicago Lawyer: Helping homeless teens digitally


When homeless youths need help, Graham Bowman hopes a new app can help them find it.

Bowman, 29, is one of five staff attorneys at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ Law Project, which runs a series of mobile legal clinics in shelters, schools and health clinics frequented by homeless youth.

The Law Project partnered with The Young Invincibles and, funded by the Visiting Nurses Association Foundation, designed a GPS-enabled mobile app that will help homeless 15- to 24-year-olds locate the services they need in places they can access.

CL: When I hear “homeless youth,” what should I be picturing?

GB: A typical situation you might have is a young person who is bouncing from friends’ house to friends’ house to distant relatives’ apartment and who really has no home and has never had any permanent nighttime residence. They can spend a month in a shelter and then an opportunity might present itself to stay in a crowded apartment with friends and then that would fall apart and then they’re back at the shelter. So these situations can be really unstable.

One thing that I’ve seen recently in the last couple years is youth that will identify an abandoned building, like an abandoned house somewhere in the city, so you’ll have a lot of youth kind of squatting there for a period of time.

CL: How did you become involved in the app?

GB: A lot of my [Law Project] clients were used to just going to emergency rooms for health care, so even after they got Medicaid [in the 2014 Affordable Care Act expansion] they would still just keep going to the emergency room. A lot of my clients weren’t really aware of other family or qualified health center clinics around them that would be a better fit for their needs.

The shelters themselves never really had any kind of good resources for navigating those problems. In one instance the shelter wasn’t even really aware there was a family clinic three blocks away. I think all of that just came from the fact that the homeless population as a whole but also homeless youth had been relying on these safety net providers like emergency rooms for so long that there wasn’t a lot of knowledge in the community about what other services were available.

CL: Tell me about the app.

GB: [In a meeting with VNA Foundation and The Young Invincibles] one idea that we had was that if both homeless youth and case workers at shelters — or just any social worker that really encounters this population — had a discrete, curated app with resources that were specifically relevant to homeless youth, it would do a lot of good.

One thing I’ve seen in my work is a lot is that a lot more youth have smartphones or access to smartphones than you would think. They might not have the data plan but they certainly access apps on the internet when they have access to Wi-Fi.

We had a small grant from VNA Foundation to really just explore this, and talk to providers and talk to youth if it was something they felt would be useful. And the answer just came back as a resounding “yes” from everybody we talked to.