By Kristen Thometz
Homeless youth are one of Chicago’s most vulnerable populations. Estimates vary, but roughly 2,000 Chicago teens are thought to be homeless each night. But homelessness for youth often looks very different than it does for adults. Advocates call it “housing instability.” We visit one program trying to prevent these teens from becoming chronically homeless adults.
On a chilly and windy March afternoon, “L” riders in Englewood learn about services for homeless teens.
“We’re out here trying to help youth ages 14-24 find stable housing, GED, whatever kind of help they might need,” said Tiffany Willis.
“We are like the first contact a lot of people have with TLP,” said Libby Karl. “So sometimes we’ll catch people like ‘Hey, we help people find stable housing,’ and they’re like ‘I need a place to stay too.’ So we can help them right there find a place to go that night.”
Tiffany Willis was herself a client of Teen Living Programs. Now, she is employed by them as a peer educator.
“I was homeless. I got kicked out a lot—an unstable house basically,” she said. “I just felt that I needed a more secure ground so that I can finish high school and do everything that I needed to do.”
The newest service offered by TLP is their Drop-In Center. The center is in the basement of an Englewood church. It opened in June of 2013 with new city of Chicago funding and offers computer access for job hunting, counseling and case management, and a comfortable place to hang out or even take a nap.
Jeri Lynch Linas is executive director of Teen Living Programs.
“The concept of a Drop-In Center is a safe space for young people to just walk in off the street and to get some kind of respite, and further services,” Linas said. “So perhaps get a hot meal. Do some laundry. Have a shower. Get connected to services.”
And she says that homelessness often looks quite different for youth than it does for adults. They call it “housing instability.”
“Couch surfing is very common. Doubled up, tripled up with family members, with friends, with aunts,” Linas said. “They travel on the CTA all night. We know that they use abandoned buildings. We know that they’re sleeping in the foyer of a building that somebody they know is in that building.”
Aaron Good has known that kind of instability. He grew up both in Chicago and the suburbs, but after a dispute with his father, he had no place to live.
“I had family that lived on the south side, family that lived on the west side,” Good said. “I wasn’t too comfortable living with either side of my family, that I just chose to try, you know, to get stability on my own.”
That brought Aaron to TLP. Now, he is enrolled at the American Academy of Art, and he has a paid internship at TLP, teaching music and audio engineering.
“I conduct workshops and studio hours, and what I do is I educate my peers on audio engineering, or song theory, music theory,” Good said.
“Instead of, ‘Oh, let me go outside and join a gang,’ no, I can go and release all my anger and emotions through music. I can learn something that’s productive,” Zamari Vevens said. “I can actually take this knowledge and go somewhere with this.”
The Drop-In Center serves 20-30 people a day, aged 18-24. On the day we visited, it was pretty empty because a group of TLP regulars were in Springfield to protest proposed budget cuts that they say could seriously impact TLP programs.
“The proposal from the governor for youth homelessness funding for Fiscal Year 16 is reduced by 55 percent, so it will reduce the funding to a program like Teen Living literally by over 50 percent, which will then impact our capacity to do the services,” Linas said.
And, she says the impact would not be solely on immediate needs. The longer term goal is preventing adult homelessness.
“That’s the goal. We intervene now. We make some changes to their circumstances—with their partnership of course—to guide them into a different road that is steering them away from not having safe and stable housing 10 years from now,” she said.
Read an interview with Julie Dworkin, director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
How many homeless youth live in Chicago?
We did a study with the University of Illinois in 2005 and came up with 25,000 statewide. We do an annual estimate which is based primarily on data from CPS, and in the most recent estimate we have for the 2013-2014 school year, we estimated 12,186. And that’s youth ages 14-21…. In that particular year, CPS identified 2,647 as being homeless. But of course those that are 18-21 are no longer in school anyway, so it’s more encompassing than CPS.
Have you noticed a trend with homeless youth numbers over the years?
They have been going up in general. CPS does their count, and as a portion of the count, [they] track how many of those children or youth are homeless with families and those who are unaccompanied youth. The numbers have fluctuated somewhat…The past three or four years the numbers have gone up and down, but overall there’s an increasing trend in homeless youth.
What is an unaccompanied youth?
Children that are homeless with their parents are considered homeless families, and they would be going to a shelter or moving around as a family unit. Unaccompanied youth are these young people who left their families or were pushed out of their families because of bad situations. They are homeless because they are on their own without a parent.
What are some of the reasons or contributing factors to youth homelessness?
The primary reasons would be serious family circumstances, physical or sexual abuse, parents with substance abuse issues, children that are LGBTQ and are pushed out by families… pregnant and parenting teens are a big piece of the population.
Is there a correlation between youth homelessness and adult homelessness?
We believe that if you don’t intervene with these youth in a positive way, they will experience homelessness as an adult. You definitely hear adults telling their stories and they often begin at a time when they were teens. That doesn’t happen for everybody, but it’s a common story. I don’t know if I have a scientific study to cite. The reason why we put a huge emphasis on programs that help youth is because they are at a transitional age. Young people in families have a ton of support as they move into the world. If [they] don’t get that support, they can’t successfully figure out how to live on their own and to get an education to find a job. These programs serve as surrogate families as they are making those transitions.
Can you tell me about some of those programs?
There’s a whole range of services in the city. Everything from outreach services, where people go out and talk to youth on the street. That’s a really important first step because a lot of times young people are really traumatized and hurt by adults, so they might not be willing to get help from a program that could provide housing. Drop-In centers are just a place they can go to during the day and get off the street, get a meal, and start to get engaged with services. We advocated for low-threshold shelters that would let them just get off the street, sleep overnight, and not have a lot of rules or expectations. Moving on from there, there are more structured programs—housing on an emergency basis, housing for 120 days, programs for housing for up to two years, and permanent housing for youth that is subsidized.
I noticed CCH has a brochure about the rights of homeless youth. Can you talk about that a little bit and specifically about educational rights?
We actually are just completing a statewide handbook with United Airlines and Baker & McKenzie law firm that has all the legal issues in one place. The Law Project does spend a lot of time working on individual cases of children and youth that are being denied access to education. The same will apply whether it’s an unaccompanied youth or homeless family; children can immediately enroll in school without having to produce any identification. There are a number of schools they have the right to go to. They don’t have to live in the district. They can go to the same school they attended when they first became homeless; they have the right to transportation. The idea is to keep them stable in one school. If you move five times in one year, you should stay in one school the whole time. It’s important stability for them.
Can you tell me about the No Youth Alone campaign?
That’s really our advocacy work, which has been going on since the mid-80s. We’re really the first organization that recognized the problem of youth homelessness and got funding for shelters for the first time… We had received $5.6 million last year and did a whole expansion of the program because we got an increased amount. And now with Gov. [Bruce] Rauner’s proposed cut of 55 percent or $3.1 million from the program — that would be disastrous for all agencies around the state that provide services to homeless youth—most of which are operating on a bare bones budget. This is the primary funding in Illinois to provide these services. We get a little federal money, but it’s not very much. That’s been the main focus our advocacy work around state funding. Last year, we passed a bill that allows unaccompanied youth to consent to their own primary health care without parental consent.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The other thing we’re really concerned about in terms of the state budget proposal, in addition to slashing funding, is the proposed elimination of all services for wards of the state 18-21. That’s really problematic for two reasons. One is really we see these two groups as interchangeable—some have gotten into the child welfare system and some haven’t. They’re coming from the same types of families and need the same type of support. When youth leave the system at 21 and aren’t prepared, they risk becoming homeless. If they leave at 18, we’ll see a lot more becoming homeless.
Interview has been condensed and edited.