This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.
By Kasey Carlson, Whitney Young
Last year, Chicago Public Schools reported serving 22,144 homeless students. More than 2,000 of those students were unaccompanied youth living without a parent or guardian.
It’s not just a local problem. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about 50,000 young people in the U.S. sleep on the street for six months or more.
“They are not really seen as homeless when they’re under 17,” said Mary Coy, chief development officer of Teen Living Programs (TLP), about youth experiencing homelessness. “There’s a notion of an ‘unaccompanied young person.’ Oftentimes, they are looked at as being connected to a parent or guardian, even though in many cases they are not—they are on their own.”
TLP is a nonprofit organization that works with young people—primarily between the ages of 14 and 21—who are experiencing homelessness. Their efforts are focused on Chicago’s South Side.
“We think youth are unique in the fact that a lot of them come into homelessness because of circumstances like family neglect and poverty, or maybe they were homeless as part of their family,” Coy said. “Maybe they’ve been victims of substance-abusing parents or physically or sexually abusive parents or adults.”
TLP is just one of many organizations in the area that help struggling teens and families. CPS also provides assistance to homeless students with immediate school enrollment, transportation to and from school, after-school tutoring and waived student fees. Emergency shelters such as The Night Ministry’s The Crib provide a safe place to stay overnight.
However, the resources available in Chicago are outnumbered by those who need them. According to The Night Ministry, there are fewer than 300 shelter beds for youth in Chicago, but as many as 2,000 young people experience homelessness every night.
TLP reported a waitlist for housing available to teens. The Crib can only accept 20 young people per night. If more than 20 people arrive, a lottery is held to determine who will stay. The shelter’s outreach team is there to help anyone not admitted find another place to stay.
FEELING AT HOME
Many teens experiencing homelessness aren’t just looking for shelter, but a place to feel accepted. The Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP) is a program that provides lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who are homeless or in unstable living situations with an opportunity to express themselves through the performing arts in a safe environment.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an estimated 110,000 LGBT youth experience homelessness each year.
Ahniyha Johnson and Kupid Moore, who are both in their early 20s, are just two of YEPP’s ensemble members who reported unstable living situations.
“I guess you could say that I’m not homeless, but that I don’t have a home … I’m a couch-surfer,” said Moore, who joined YEPP after seeing one of their performances. “I needed to find people who were expressive like I was expressive—in an artistic way.”
Johnson said her living situation is a bit different, but that she also found out about YEPP through one of their performances.
“I live with my mother, but I won’t feel stable until I have my own (place) and my name is the sole leaseholder and I’m paying all the bills and I’m being that adult that I know I am,” Johnson explained. “I still consider my housing unstable.”
Although both Johnson and Moore said YEPP has helped them make friends, express themselves and feel safe, many homeless teens deal with the shame and harsh stereotypes that come with their living situations.
BREAKING DOWN WALLS
The filmmakers behind “The Homestretch,” a documentary about three homeless teens in Chicago, are trying to help audiences rethink those stereotypes. The film, which will air on PBS April 13, follows the local teens’ journeys through high school.
“There is a pervasive negative stereotype against youth homelessness,” said Anne de Mare, co-director of “The Homestretch.”
According to de Mare, the media typically portrays two prominent stereotypes of youth homelessness. One is the strung-out runaway who’s at fault for his or her unfortunate situation. The other is the “homeless to Harvard” story about someone who’s struggled through difficult times but receives a full ride to college and becomes wildly successful.
“Both of those stereotypes are really dangerous because one accuses the young person for their own situation,” de Mare said. “You have to remember these are children. For the most part, these are young people who are between the ages of 12 and 21.
“The other one says, ‘Well, if this person can succeed, then why can’t everyone?’ It places this expectation on the youth that they should be able to get themselves out of the situation.”
Johnson and Moore said they have no intention of letting their living situations dictate their futures.
“I see myself going wherever my heart tells me, just being in a place where I’m free … just somewhere where I am allowed to express myself,” Moore said. “I just see myself being expressive, genuine and making money off doing that.”
Johnson said she hopes to get involved with the kind of work that has affected her own life.
“I see myself doing more work like this, and transformative justice work and dealing with homeless youth,” she said. “I’m starting the process with being able to do that, like getting ready to go back to school and working with youth organizations throughout the Chicago area.”
Coy said that leveling the playing field might help outsiders understand. Erasing the misconception that those who struggle with homelessness are different from those who don’t is one of the best ways for young people to help the cause, she explained.
“Awareness is so critical in understanding who the population is. In many ways, there is such a commonality,” Coy said. “These are folks who are emerging into adulthood, trying to figure out who they are and where they’re going to be in the world like everybody does at that time of life. There is so much commonality based on the fact that they are, in fact, peers—whether or not somebody has a place to stay or not.”
BY THE NUMBERS
number of homeless Chicagoans in the course of the 2013-2014 school year.
number of homeless students CPS identified in the 2013-2014 school year.
of that number were children of color.
were diagnosed with disabilities or developmental delays.
are unaccompanied youth who were homeless and living without a parent or guardian.
Source: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless