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Campaign aims to end Chicago youth homelessness by 2020
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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Even with some of the sheer numbers of youth experiencing homelessness in Chicago and the challenges they face reinforced to an Oct. 25 audience at the Chicago loop offices of Chase Bank, it was the testimony of Unity Parenting and Counseling youth leader Caprice Williams that presented the most devastating and persuasive case for the unprecedented goal of the I AM IN campaign launched that morning to end youth homelessness in Chicago by 2020.

The campaign is the next step after over five years of work and engagement from the Chicago Taskforce on Homeless Youth and each of its partners. With support from the advocacy group All Chicago, the Taskforce has structured a campaign which All Chicago called "a world-class, cross-systems road map."

A coalition of dozens of providers, government agencies, funders and advocates have been meeting for several weeks to create the plan and apply for a multi-million-dollar demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as part of a nationwide plan to endless youth homelessness, following on their recent similar goal on veterans homelessness.

Williams, who has been homeless since the age of 15, is part of the campaign's youth advisory board. They will be integral to decisions made in the navigation of that map and the accomplishment of its ultimate goal.

"I ended up getting fired from my job, sleeping in my car, sleeping on the train," she said. "My car got repossessed when I was pregnant with my daughter. When I was five months pregnant, me and her father were standing outside and someone hopped out of a van, walked up on him and shot him in his neck and his arm."

"My story is not the only one like this," she added. "It's more than just us. It goes deep. It's so much more than us getting funding. I went to the Chicago Urban League. They didn't do anything for me. Whatever we are building, make sure you have people who are compassionate about it. There are some people who will take a position because they see how much the money is and they see the media attention it could bring to them but they could care less about the person they're trying to help."

"We are homeless, we have a story, we want to be heard," she concluded, struggling to contain her emotions.

Before Williams spoke, it was clear that she and her peers were joined in solidarity by everyone in the room.

They included representatives from organizations attached to the I AM IN campaign steering committee, Chicago House, The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Heartland Alliance, La Casa Norte, Teen Living Programs, The Night Ministry and Unity Parenting and Counseling Services. Pride Action Tank, Windy City Times, Center on Halsted and other organizations have also been contributing to the plan.

"One of the things that's important to our work is stronger communities, stronger neighborhoods and an important part of that is addressing and ending homelessness," Office of the Mayor Neighborhood and Community Engagement Senior Advisor Roderick Hawkins said. "I have a passion for youth homelessness in particular. I know this [campaign] will lead to better coordination, communication and action that ends youth homelessness."

It was a statement energetically reiterated by All Chicago CEO Nonie Brennan.

"We know that we can end youth homelessness because we are already ending homelessness in Chicago," she said. "We absolutely have to work together. We need one list of every single homeless youth in this city. We need great data to drive our work. We need a path forward about where we are going to go and we have to be flexible."

Brennan went on to announce that, thanks to the work of the Taskforce, Chicago is "positioned to be successful" for the youth homelessness demonstration project grant made available in August this year from HUD.

Teen Living Programs Executive Director Jeri Linas noted the four key goals the campaign intends to address which will make the City of Chicago "an amazing candidate for this grant."

They are safe and stable housing, education and employment, physical, mental and behavioral health and permanent connections.

According to Linas, Chicago boasts "a very culturally competent and diverse model of services" such as street and community outreach, drop-in centers and beds available in low-threshold overnight shelters, interim housing, transitional living and permanent supportive housing.

She noted that these services are geographically located across Chicago and take into account "the racial and ethnic diversity of our city [and are] inclusive of the LGBTQ population and trafficked youth."

"Even if HUD does not select Chicago, the work that we're doing here today and the work we're doing on this initiative is going to position us to move the needle on youth homelessness," Brennan asserted.

The campaign's target date for ending youth homelessness is one matched by the federal government which, according to National Network for Youth Director of Public Policy Eric Masten, last year made the commitment on a national level by 2020.

"When we say 'end youth and young adult homelessness,' we [don't] mean there will never be youth who experience homelessness, but it will be rare, brief and non-recurring," he said.

Masten noted that the nationwide commitment has support from Congress though increased funding for runaway and homeless youth programs to a record $119 million along with initiatives such as the HUD grants.

A national policy research initiative will provide the kind of data Brennan cited as needed to propel the both the Chicago and U.S. campaigns forward.

According to Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago Executive Director Bryan Samuels, the multidimensional strategy behind the Voices of Youth Count is designed to "systematically go through and document the ways in which young people become homeless as well as to design strategies with the ultimate goal of ending homelessness."

Data collected by 27 teams led by youth who had or were experiencing homelessness yielded over 600 surveys of runaway and homeless youth in Cook County.

"We'll be able to look at what young people say they need verses what's available locally," Samuels said. "All of that data will be [forthcoming] over the next couple of months here in Chicago and also in 21 [participating] communities around the country."

Linas stressed the need of identifying and bridging service gaps such as "family engagement, resiliency and reunification, foster care conditions, juvenile justice engagement, host homes, rapid rehousing and coordinated access that is youth focused."

A panel moderated by Chicago Sun-Times columnist and ABC 7 political analyst Laura S. Washington and comprised of City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services ( DFSS ) Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler, Sheriff's Justice Institute Director Hanke Gratteau, Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services Acting Director Avik Das, and Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Debbie Reznick not only illustrated the commitment of city and county services as well as philanthropic organizations to the I AM IN goal but also the challenges which the campaign faces.

For Morrison Butler, chief among the concerns faced by the DFSS is resources.

"We would like to have more overnight shelter beds, more capacity," she said. "Collaboration [across agencies] needs to be supported. The government by itself can't solve this problem. This is messy work and emotionally, we are all grappling to try to figure out how to do it."

Gratteau stated that the sheriff's office interacts with homeless youth through the evictions of families from their homes, with runaways through their Child Protection Unit and in the Cook County Jail.

"That's where their homelessness becomes criminalized," she said. "The jail, too often, is hardship housing for the homeless and, while we are a point of intersection and intervention, when they land in our custody it's often too late."

Gratteau added that, on any given day, out of the 300 individuals who are subject to electronic monitoring but have no place to stay, one third are youth.

"Unlike prison, where there's a definite day that somebody's going home, at the jail somebody could go to court tomorrow and have their charges dropped and, in a very short time, we have to cobble together a discharge plan," she said. "We're trying to do discharge planning on the first day somebody comes into our custody. But that's an enormous task. Last year, we had 52,000 people who spent at least one night in the jail before they were released. But, just because it's hard, doesn't mean we shouldn't do it."

Das said that there are approximately 3,000 young people on some form of active probation.

"One unfortunate situation [is] where you have the young person that turns 18, and the family says 'you're done. You've got to go,'" he asserted. "The probation officer and the colleagues they work with in the community [have] to figure out what to do with that young adult."

"It's inexcusable, in a country as resourced as ours to have this issue," Reznick said. "One challenge in particular right now is our state budget and the tragic impact on the work that many [agencies] are trying to do. We have many things that are working but we need more and different models of [them]."

Morrison Butler stressed the importance of sharing data between organizations and agencies.

Gratteau presented some.

"The number of people who do say up front that they are homeless have an average of nine prior bookings when they come into our custody," she said. "We currently have a 26-year-old man in our custody. He has been with us on 51 different occasions. He was thrown out of his house by his grandma when he was 18 years old and his crime is homelessness."

Das added that, of those involved in the court system, "about 45 percent are 18 or older. About 1,300 young people. When I'm looking at how we switch on the lights so that we're more aware of this need, I'm looking at those neighborhoods that are heavily represented in our population and the kinds of resources and agencies [who] are plugged into doing that hard work on the ground."

Yet, of all the challenges presented, it was Williams and the youth advisory board who offered the most profound words about the prospect of ending youth homelessness by 2020.

"We want somebody to relate to us, we want somebody to feel us, we want somebody to understand what we're saying and what we're going through," she said. "It's time for a change. We just want to stand up and take everything on. It's not easy. Even if don't get this grant. Even if we don't get ending homelessness, we have our minds and we have our hearts. Money is a factor, but if we don't get it, is that going to be it?"

"Together, as a comprehensive, coordinated community response, we can absolutely set youth up for long-term success, to avoid chronic homelessness and, instead, become thriving adults and member of Chicago," Linas said. "Are you in?"

For information on All Chicago and The Chicago Taskforce for Homeless Youth, visit: or contact Jeri Linas .

The video playlist below contains multiple videos. Choose Playlist in the top left hand corner to watch videos out of order, if preferred.

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