Chicago Tribune: Project aims to place more homeless youths in private housing

By Tony Briscoe

Antwan Jones still remembers the feeling of disbelief when he and his mother were evicted from their West Side apartment, forcing him into homelessness at 16 years old.

“I was shocked. It almost felt unreal in the way that I thought, you know, it would be over in a few days,” said Jones, now 24.

“I had no idea it would last as many years as it did.”

With his mother “struggling with her own issues” and coed housing hard to come by, Jones became separated from her and dropped out of John Marshall Metropolitan High School.

He sought refuge in youth shelters, where he became accustomed to crowded quarters and 4 a.m. wake-up calls. But a bed wasn’t always guaranteed. Sometimes the shelter would be full after he finished working shifts as a security guard, compelling him to find alternatives — occasionally a friend’s couch, usually a CTA train.

“You’re not just going through homelessness,” Jones said. “There are other things as well. You put your safety at risk, your sexual health and put yourself through all these dangerous situations.

“The run-ins with different stresses just click, and when you go through that, you’re no longer normal.”

To try to ease the burden on city youth shelters, the Windy City Times — a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender newspaper — launched an online fundraising campaign last month to provide privately funded housing options. This approach, known as scattered-site housing, offers homeless or low-income people affordable, private housing options rather than congregated living at local shelters.

The publication is teaming up with two nonprofit youth housing agencies for the 750 Club Apartment Adoption Project, aimed at providing homeless young adults, ages 18 to 25, and emancipated minors, with private apartments for two years.

“If the model works, scattered-site housing can alleviate the strain on shelters,” said Tracy Baim, Windy City Times publisher, who is overseeing the project.

Without stable housing, studies show young people are at greater risk for assault, drug abuse, gangs and truancy. But getting a uniform count of this population is challenging because different agencies use different methods.

A City of Chicago count conducted in January found 1,644 people younger than 18 living on the streets — nearly one-third of the homeless population — but there are fewer than 400 beds dedicated to this group. The city count includes a tally of all people with temporary housing situations, including those living on the streets, in shelters, on public transportation, in parks and in cars.

Estimates by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless starkly contrast with the city’s count.

The nonprofit, which releases annual data on youth homelessness based on Chicago Public Schools surveys and other factors, estimates there are 12,186 unaccompanied young people, ages 14-21, in 2014, a 33 percent increase compared with five years ago, at the height of the recession.

CPS classifies students who live with relatives or another family because of financial hardship, as well as those living in motels or shelters, as homeless.

The spike in youth homelessness has been hard to nail down, said Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the coalition.

“The reasons youth become homeless are different than why adults become homeless, which is largely economic,” Dworkin said.

In a survey of 400 homeless Chicago youth this fall, 33 percent said they had been thrown out of their home by a parent or guardian, according to Teen Living Programs.

In many instances, parents can’t afford to take care of them. Other times, minors are kicked out by parents for becoming pregnant or for their sexual preference. Some run away after they are abused.

The 750 Club will focus on the LGBT community, which makes up a large portion of affected youths, but not exclusively, Baim said.

The AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s housing program will distribute the proceeds, and 750 Club partners La Casa Norte and Unity Parenting, which already provide scattered-site housing options, can apply for funds, Baim said.

“What’s great about this is we’re piggybacking a system that is already in place,” Baim said. “They already do a great job, we just want to add more units.”

Based on the average cost of a studio apartment, every $750 raised will pay for one youth to live in an apartment for one month, Baim said. She expects to have as many as five young people in apartments by early 2015.

So far, Baim has raised about $9,000 — enough to house one youth for a year.

The project’s first fundraising event, featuring live music and a raffle, will be Jan. 15 at Mad River Bar & Grille in Lakeview.

Amy Dworsky, research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, said freedom is part of the reason scattered-site housing is appealing. But that can also be a drawback if young people sacrifice access to support services.

While scattered-site housing has long been an option for youth, Dworkin said 750 Club is the first privately funded initiative she has seen, other than churches adopting families in the suburbs.

With only 374 beds in Chicago dedicated to homeless young people, including shelters and scattered-site housing, their options are limited, Dworkin said.

“Many times, we saw youths going to adult shelters, where they really didn’t feel safe,” Dworkin said.

After eight years on the streets, Jones is a success story. In late November, he obtained a one-bedroom apartment in Austin through La Casa Norte’s scattered-site housing program.

“Moving around, place to place, your thoughts crowded with people and things,” he said. “It’s hard to be a successful adult. It’s helped a lot to not focus on housing.”

In less than two weeks at his new home, he found a job as a health counselor at a West Side nonprofit, where he assists the homeless.

He contributes 30 percent of his paycheck to rent as a part of the program. With a portion of the rest, he said he plans to save to enroll in a local community college in January, where he wants to study social services to continue to help those in positions similar to his.

“I thought it’s only right,” Jones said.