"She took me to the side, and said, girl, you need to wash up," Shena, 20, said with a laugh, as she recalled one of the first times she met her best friend Diamond.
Shena was about 15 or 16 years old. She had just relocated to Chicago from Kentucky "to get away from my family," and hadn't yet learned the ins-and-outs of maintaining her appearance on the streets.
"Just because you're going through a struggle doesn't mean you have to look like it," deadpanned Diamond, 29, a lifelong Lakeview resident whose current housing situation is unstable. "The thing isYou don't want to look homeless. You don't want to smell."
For many of the street-based youth in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, clothing and hygiene rank highly as survival tools.
Windy City Times found that a significant portion of youth interviewed have internalized stigmas and stereotypes about homelessness. As a result, many of these young people work especially hard to blend in.
"It is very important that we camouflage into our community," said Robert Dibbles, 25, who has been homeless or precariously housed since he came out of the closet as a teen. "I don't want to look like a stereotype bum. I'm not. I struggled. I've been through a lot in my life. But I want to look like I belong on the street with you."
Maintaining a positive perception can help youth avoid harassment or stigmatization, Dibbles explained.
"In the beginning, I was talked about," he said. "I smelled bad. I had on dirty clothes… I slept in parks… No one would hire me."
Today, Dibbles volunteers with several LGBT and homeless organizations and is taking steps to continue his education. He said a positive attitude and image were partly responsible for his success.
"If I'm off and I don't look cute, then my day is not cute," Dibbles said. "It's hard to get my mind right."
Building that image is often tricky, however, as many youth rely on local shelters, social service agencies and churches for clothing and toiletries.
The Chicagoland Community Church, Lakeview Pantry and StandUp for Kidsamong othersoffer free clothing, which is typically used and donated by community members. And the Broadway Youth Center (BYC) gives young people a $25 Brown Elephant voucher once a month.
"I wear whatever fits me and is practical," said Drakera, 20, a trans woman who lacks stable housing. "At the Brown Elephant, the stuff is still pretty expensive. And the stuff they have on sale doesn't really fiteither it's a couple sizes too small or it's been altered."
Drakera said she'd like to maintain a more curated style, but for now, is grateful for the donations.
When it comes to beauty, many young people rely on one another. The Youth Lounge at Broadway United Methodist has begun offering manicures and pedicures; the BYC regularly makes sheers and scissors available for haircuts. And it is not uncommon to see youth styling one another's hair or offering beauty advice.
"Beauty isn't everything, but it does take you a hell of a ways," said Destiny, 19, a trans woman who lives on the South Side but frequents Lakeview for its inclusivity. She credits the neighborhood's trans women for teaching her how to dress for her body type. And like Shena before her, Destiny is appreciative of her peers' honesty.
Many youth view it as their responsibility to look out for new arrivals, Dibbles said. And taking care of one's chosen family extends to matters of appearance.
"[If someone looks bad], I'm not going to tell her: Girl, you look ravishing; the boys are going to be all over you," Dibbles said. "No. They won't. Because they weren't all over me."
Several programs offer shampoo, deodorant and other toiletries. Showers are available at the Crib, the Night Ministry's LGBT-friendly shelter, which houses 20 youth per night (a daily lottery determines who will receive a bed for the evening). And when the Crib was closed this past summer, the Youth Lounge offered Sunday showers to fill the service gap.
Still, many young people rely on public restrooms to change clothes and wash up.
"I learned how to [get ready] quick," Diamond said. "If you take too long, you could have people watching you when you go in the bathroom and timing you, and then you can get banned…. I try to be courteous… You've got to know your pace. If it'll normally take you about 30 minutes to get ready, make it 15. If it's 15, cut that in half."
When Windy City Times asked Diamond how people would treat her if she didn't maintain her hygiene and appearance, she said: "I don't want to find out. They already treat me bad enough for not having a job."
Diamond continued: "They say cleanliness is next to godliness, but for me, cleanliness is next to sanity. If you feel clean, if you look good, you feel like, okay, I can conquer what I need to conquer. I can make it through another day… But if you're out here stanking, and people don't want to be around you, that will put you into a shell, where you just say, I really do want to kill myself."
Strangers take cues from each other's appearance, Shena said. "You've got to point people in the right direction."
Colby Mowery runs the weekly Safe Haven dinner where he passes out clothing. Many Chicagoland Community Church members view homosexuality as a sin, but here, Mowery gives a feminine trans youth a dress and high heels. Photos by Bill Healy.
Many youth have expressed interest in creative careers, such as performing or hairdressing. Here, a young man shows off the hairstyle his friend has created for him. Photo by Erica Demarest.
Shampoo, conditioner and toothpaste are among the items available at the twice-monthly Youth Lounge at Broadway United Methodist Church. Volunteers donate toiletries and clothing. Photo by Kate Sosin.
Next week in Generation Halsted, an in-depth look at the Broadway United Methodist Church's innovative Youth Lounge. Photo essay: Overnight in Boystown. Watch what really happens.
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