Chicago Teen Homeless: Finding A Better Way

homelesspic4Many of us are one or two paychecks away from becoming homeless. This has become the average norm for middle class Americans who fought through the 2008 Great Recession and now are gradually adjusting to the ‘new normal.” However, for thousands of citizens, financial recovery is a far cry from a permanent home to call their own.

In Chicago, there is a deep concern for affordable housing. As property taxes rise and the last of the housing projects are torn down — replaced by empty lots or future luxury rental developments — low-income and working families are moved out.  There is a story behind each person’s circumstances — beyond the stereotypical assumptions. Homelessness is not limited to veterans, drug addicts and ex-felons.

One of the rising groups that are challenged with homelessness is young people between 16-24.

At the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), Niya Kelly is the policy specialist that oversees the organization’s Youth Committee. She is often in Springfield advocating for legislation that helps better housing conditions for young homeless citizens.

Kelly says, “As an organization, we believe that housing is a human right. A lot of things that I work on take down barriers so that people that are experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity can find housing whether that’s through more support. Making sure that people aren’t homeless through homeless prevention. Giving them the services they need in order to not be homeless anymore.”

Taylor Bennett (Center) visits La Casa Norte youth for a pre-Thanksgiving lunch.

Hip hop recording artist Taylor Bennett is becoming a familiar name among young millennials who have followed the music of both him and his brother, Chance the Rapper. During a brief break on tour with Tory Lanez, Taylor went to visit some of the young people at La Casa Norte homeless shelter for teens in the Back of the Yards neighborhood the day before Thanksgiving.

As an added treat, he brought Connie’s Pizza to sponsor lunch as they got a chance to talk and spend some time with him.

Tackling the issues of homelessness is bigger than a brief visit to La Casa Norte, but he feels it’s a necessity to shine light on a growing problem in his hometown.

“When people think about homeless people in general in America, they don’t think about kids. They don’t think about the fact there’s young people from the ages 13 and possibly younger that don’t have anywhere to go. A certain place to go every night to rest their head and eat. They’re waking up every day going to school,” Bennett said.

Agencies Help Coalition

La Casa Norte is among 36 agencies that CCH works with to help place folks seeking shelter and housing. The agency’s primary focus is young adults’ well-being through various assistance, which includes providing clean clothing, job training and pursuing their higher education through the Youth in College program.

Shanavia Stevens has worked at La Casa Norte as the program coordinator for three years. One of her main responsibilities is to oversee the drop-in center, where they house 45 overnight for 18-24-year-old displaced young adults.

La Casa Norte Back of the Yards location. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

“We have a lot of young people that we service that have issues within their family. So, a lot of times, the parents feel when they turn 18, you’re an adult, you can fend for yourself because they’re struggling to take care of other siblings,” she said. “We have one young person, he’s the oldest of nine. His parents own a three-flat, once he turned 18, they moved him out because they couldn’t afford to take care of him.”

In addition, the rise of homeless youth includes many young people who are gay or transgender. “Often within the African-American community, we see parents who’ve turned their backs on them because they can’t accept they’re lifestyle,” Stevens said.

At the drop-in, they have emergency beds with 30 beds at the South Side location, 15 beds at the Logan Square center along with 5 beds designated for pregnant and parenting young ladies.

Jaleel Carter is one of the first young clients that La Casa accepted into their drop-in program. He was in several foster homes,  in between living with his Aunt. He eventually aged out of the DCFS system once he turned 21.

“When I first became homeless, I learned about the North Side and would stay at a shelter called The Crib. One of the workers there used to be a part of La Casa. They had just opened a shelter. So, myself and five other people decided to take that trip over to their Humboldt Park location. I fell in love with it immediately.”

Staying at The Crib homeless shelter, which welcomes LGBTQ youth, Jaleel didn’t feel isolated or receive indifference from the staff at La Casa Norte.

Jaleel Carter at La Casa Norte. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

“Shanavia instantly clicked with us. You could tell from her behavior she was about actually providing for us. That’s what keeps me coming here. It’s not a sense of ‘Oh, you’re homeless, and you don’t have anything else going for you so you might accept what we give you.. But more so, ‘Hey, look you’re homeless, what can we do to help you? How can we lead you?” he said.

Working as a case manager at La Casa for a year, Leslie Taylor admits the rise of homeless youth is a concern.

“I feel like it’s increased — a lot. Just within the year that I’ve been here, our caseload around this time last year was a little over 300. It’s now closer to 400. At the end of December, we’ll be at 400-500 in our caseload. It’s jumped so much,” he said.

“I feel like those young people that couldn’t find alternate schooling or GED programs, time got away from them. Over time, what should they do? The kids don’t have nowhere to go, so they come here or they find out from the Harold Washington Library what we offer.”

Shanavia Stevens chimes in. “People always focus on the vets as the number one group on homelessness.”

Growing up, Taylor says the Bennett family home would be filled with one or two of their children’s school friends staying with them on short, or sometimes long, periods — without a permanent residence.

As Taylor’s musical career grows, he understands the importance and power of bringing this crisis to the forefront.

Homeless Students

According to the CCH, Chicago Public Schools identified 18,831 homeless students during the 2015-16 school year.

This is 6.8 percent (1,374 students) less than the prior year, but total CPS enrollment also dropped. The share of homeless students in CPS remained about the same, at 4.8 percent.

Homeless students identified by CPS were 98.2 percent children of color. They were 83.7% (15,759) African-American, 12.9% (2,423) Latino, 1.6% (306) other ethnicities, and 1.7% (317) white, with 14 whose ethnicity was not identified.

Picture l-r: La Casa Norte client, Alisha and Taylor Bennett. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

On his visit to the Back of the Yards teen shelter, Bennett addresses the small group of young adults, asking them if any have an interest in making music. About four people raise their hands in earnest. He smiles and adds, “I would like to hear some of your stuff.” He takes time to capture a selfie with each person before he leaves.

His commitment to helping bring awareness is personal for the Chatham native. “My friends have been affected by it. A lot of people don’t understand about homeless youth. Homeless youth is about not having a concrete residence or an address to go to. So staying with an aunt, grandma or going to a friend’s house to eventually sleeping on trains. Growing up, that’s something that’s impacted my friends.”

It’s has also impacted 20-year-old Alisha, who’s lived between her grandmother and mother growing up. Family conflict eventually came to a head, sending her to the hospital for mental health observation. Upon leaving, the high school senior found herself homeless — she was not allowed to return home. Alisha was at Pacific Garden Mission housed with 200 other women before she came to La Casa Norte’s humble 35-bed facility.

“When I came here, the staff seemed nice. I got to know some of the youth. I found out they help you out with a lot more. The other shelters didn’t help with anything, they expect you to go out and do it yourself. Here, they started helping me look for jobs, and helping me with clothes.” She said it was a different environment, which she liked.

Although reports from the city of Chicago claim that the number of homeless families decreased by 4.4 percent in 2015, in 2014, the city claimed that the number of homeless families stayed about the same and the number of homeless individuals increased by 5 percent.

Many agencies rely on n partial financial support from state grants in addition to private funding, but without a solid budget in place past 2016, it could jeopardize hundreds seeking temporary housing.

Niya Kelly says CCH’s efforts is to stay on top of state legislators.  

“We do not have a budget, which means that homeless youth providers aren’t sure when they’re going to receive funding. In June, the General Assembly and the governor came to an agreement on stopgap funding so that we will receive FY-16, which meant they receive funding from July 15 to Dec. 16,” she said.

“Once Dec. 31 ends, we will once again be back without a budget. Our advocacy is showing youth that we work with such as La Casa Norte, but there are other programs throughout the city that are working with homeless youth that are in school who are getting job training and mental health services.

These kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing. They’ve been put into circumstances that most adults wouldn’t know what to do.”

Markaysa at La Casa Norte. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

Traveling from Omaha, Nebraska, to stay with her mom in the south suburbs of Chicago, 20-year old Markaysa soon found herself a statistic without a home.

She says, “I was in denial of my situation. Before then, I was couch surfing and staying with people. Even working as a live-in nanny, to work for rent. I didn’t want to stay at a shelter — it scared me. All of the stories that you hear, it’s not something that makes you feel safe. I’d rather feel safe outside in my car instead of a shelter.” 

Markaysa ended up at Teen Living Program (TLP). They referred her to La Casa Norte for assistance. She connected with the staff, and it has become the only shelter she’s stayed at.

“It’s too easy, and it’s also too easy to stay homeless. I have so many job opportunities, but because of the fact that I don’t have my birth certificate, I can’t get a state ID. Without two forms of identification, most jobs won’t take you. That means if I have no income coming in then I can’t work.” 

With the help of La Casa’s resources, Markaysa is closer to receiving her birth certificate and determined to re-enter college, working toward applying at Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Under the direction of its founding executive director, Sol Flores — La Casa Norte is building a multimillion-dollar facility eds in the Logan Square community. Flores’ passion has transformed the organization from two employees to 80 staffers to provide a safe haven for Chicago area youth homeless since 2002.

Leslie Taylor tries to encourage parents and guardians to not give up on their children. “We have to be with our young people to rule their process and not let them go. Not surrender them to ‘I’m tired.’ We know they are doing so much, providing for this child, putting clothes on their back,” he said.

“What we need you to do is talk to their teachers, talk to the entire community that is involved with the life of this child. The truth is that it takes a village to raise a child, but you have to talk to the village, if you don’t do that, the child will raise his or herself.”

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