The Youth Project: Homeless coalition partners with Baker & McKenzie, United Air for new handbook to navigate difficulties

By Zachary Woznak

At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, Chicago Public Schools identified 22,144 homeless students. The total marked an 18.6 percent jump from the previous year and won’t make getting proper assistance to homeless teens any easier.

Now, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is partnering with other local groups to try to get necessary resources into the hands of the teens who need it most.

The Homeless Youth Handbook released Wednesday seeks to assist homeless youth in Illinois with information on a variety of legal issues common for the city’s homeless teens. A collaboration between the CCH, Baker & McKenzie LLP and United Airlines, the handbook is available both online and at a reception for local organizations hosted by Baker & McKenzie.

“Homeless youth face so many different barriers and have so many different struggles,” said Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the Coalition’s Law Project. “These are just issues that young people who are on their own without a home face.”

The 17-chapter book covers an array of topics, from LGBTQ resources to credit reports – and was compiled by more than 50 pro bono lawyers from Baker & McKenzie and United Airlines. The Law Project, a group of attorneys who specialize on issues of homeless youth, trained the volunteers on the big issues of youth homelessness before sitting down to tackle the handbook.

This is Baker & McKenzie’s third youth handbook, having previously released editions in Washington and Minnesota. With each edition, the firm partnered with both a nonprofit and a corporate client. In Minnesota, that client was the water, hygiene and energy company Ecolab. In Washington, it was Starbucks.

“If we could do all 50 states that would be great, but we obviously knew we would have to start small,” said Adrienne Pitts, a litigation partner at Baker & McKenzie. “Chicago is such an important hub in having so many terrific non-profit organizations around the city of Chicago invested in assisting homeless youth.”

According to Pitts, the “footprint” of the handbook doesn’t change much between states. But to properly adapt the Illinois edition, Baker & McKenzie knew they would need a local non-profit like CCH who was familiar with the needs of and resources for local youth, traditionally one of the most difficult homeless populations to track..

Still, with the breadth of material, CCH wanted to make sure the research was airtight.

“We, internally, were a small legal staff, so there’s some types of cases we would not have as much expertise in as, say, an organization that specifically focuses on criminal issues,” Nix-Hodes said. “In many cases when we felt that it would benefit from review from an outside expert, we arranged for that to happen.”

Helping homeless teens through legal advice is rare – Nix-Hodes says hers is the only Chicago organization which focuses on it. According to Pitts, it’s still an unmet need. She cites the common occurrence of calls to her firm asking for guidance on homeless students in schools as an example.

“Some of our homeless youth may need social services, may need mental health services. They may need to better understand the laws related to domestic violence,” Pitts said. “These are all things that impact all of our youth, but can – to a much harsher degree – impact our homeless youth whose resources simply are just limited.”

To help expand these resources, hardcopies of the handbook will be sent to leaders of youth outreach and homeless organizations. Nix-Hodes also said a poster campaign will compliment this, appearing in the offices of counselors and organization leaders with the hopes of catching the eyes of those who may need it.

For Pitts, it’s the handbook’s web presence that will ultimately prove the most valuable, especially with a younger generation.

“Truthfully our youth today – with technology advancements – tend to be a lot more enterprising and can go out and get information,” Pitts said. “And we thought ‘why not provide it one place…to assist them in their transition.’”

A new handbook out by a collaboration with homeless groups, law and airline firms seeks help homeless youth deal with the complications of life on the streets/Web image

A new handbook out by a collaboration with homeless groups, law and airline firms seeks help homeless youth deal with the complications of life on the streets/Web image