On Sept. 23, shortly after Pope Francis stood in front of the White House and delivered a speech asking "all men and women of good will in this great nation to support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable," over 100 homeless youth, their advocacy organizations and Reps. Greg Harris and Will Guzzardi rallied outside of the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago before delivering a cardboard box to Gov. Bruce Rauner's office.
On its front was a simple request written in blue felt-tip "don't make homeless youth live in a dirty box."
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless ( CCH ) organized the rally designedaccording to a press releaseto call upon the governor to "end the budget stalemate so homeless youth are no longer at risk for physical, sexual and emotional harm."
The impasse in Springfield over Rauner's budget cuts has already had a severe impact on the city's estimated 12,186 unaccompanied homeless youth ( according to a CCH 2014 analysis ) aged 14-21. Statewide, the CCH quotes Illinois State Board of Education estimated numbers from the 2013-14 public school year at 59,112.
A. Anne Holcomb is a supervisor at Ujima Village Homeless Shelter. The organization was represented at the event by some of the youth it serves alongside those from The Broadway Youth Center ( BYC ), Unity Parenting & Counseling Inc., Neon Street Dorms and performers from the OH! Homeless Youth Group.
"We get 98 percent of our funds from the state," Holcomb told Windy City Times. "We haven't had funding from them since June 30. If the city hadn't helped us out temporarily we would be closed by now. We had a plan in place to shut down. The parent organization would have survived but the shelter wouldn't have made it. But the city help is not going to last forever. We're already having to cut stuff. We can't give kids transit cards so they have to walk across two gang lines to go to their social workers, they can't go to job interviews. Some of them can't go to school."
At the open of the rally, Holcomb played devil's advocate donning a mask of Rauner and responding to requests from two performers from OH! who begged him to sign a budget that would fund the state's homeless youth programs.
"I am not going to sign a budget until the legislature supports my turnaround agenda," Holcomb replied as Rauner. "Why don't you be good kids and just go home to your parents? Why don't you just get a job? You're old enough to work. Are you lazy? The American dream is there for anyone who pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps."
"It's extremely hard to get a job when you're homeless and you don't have a phone, address or interview clothes or even a bus card," the kids replied. "It's very hard to go to college when you're homeless and you don't know where you are going to sleep and you have to carry your books and clothes around with you. Besides, Pell Grants don't cover all the costs. I don't have the credit history to qualify for student loans."
One of Ujima's former residents has managed to go to college. But James Ivory told the crowd that he wouldn't be there if he didn't have a homeless shelter to go home to at night. "When you're outside in the cold, when you're hungry it's very hard to be happy," he said. "When you're unhappy, you make a lot of unhappy decisions."
However no decisions are being made in Springfield despite the attempts of lawmakers like Harris and Guzzardi.
"This is a huge issue," Harris told Windy City Times. "The governor has vetoed almost all of the state budget putting at risk homeless youth, childcare, early intervention, services for autistic kids and families and it's just wrong. Everyone knows what the right solution is. The governor keeps trying to hold the budget hostage to his anti-union policies."
Harris added that on Sept 24 he would present Senate Bill 2046 in Executive Committee that will fully fund programs including homeless youth services, mental health and substance abuse services and supportive housing. "I and my colleagues are dedicated to passing that bill over and over again as many times as it takes to provide for those in society who need our help until the governor agrees to step up to the plate and do the right thing," he said.
"I'm frustrated," Guzzardi told the crowd. "Frankly, it breaks my heart to have to be hearing from these young people and to have to say to them 'I'm going to do everything in my power to pass a fair and equitable budget but I have a pretty strong feeling that the governor and the Republicans in the legislature are going to keep that from happening.' It hurts me to hear us having to justify these services on financial grounds, to say that it's cheaper to provide services to homeless people than to let them die in the streets. That's not the argument we need to make. We need to talk about people's lives. We need to be angry about this."
Calvin Curtisa gay youth served by Broadway Youth Center stepped up to the microphone to speak about his life. "I became homeless about a year ago when I had issues with my family because they didn't accept that I was gay," he said. "BYC was one of the first places that I found. It's helped me on a business and a personal level. If it didn't exist I don't know where I would be or where a lot of my friends would be."
"I had trouble finding work because I have mental and physical impairments," Curtis told Windy City Times. "I've just been doing the best I can."
Holcomb and James were two of a small contingent allowed up to Rauner's office on the 16th floor of the Thompson Center on order to deliver the cardboard box.
Holcombherself a survivor of homelessnessannounced to the crowd that the governor was not there but that the box was accepted by his press assistant Jacquelyn Reineke who seemed genuinely moved and pledged to give the box to Rauner.
"She said she understood things were hard," Holcomb told Windy City Times. "She acknowledged that this was not a good situation. I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed to be an encounter in good faith and I was afraid it wouldn't be. I was homeless in the 80's when there were no programs. In my street family there were nine of us and I was the only one in my group to make it to age 30. If these programs close, people are going to die. You are going to cut Illinois' right hand off if you don't invest in our kids."
Harris was carrying a quote from Pope Francis which he shared with the crowd. It read "I ask you to ensure humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it."
On Sept 24as Harris presented Bill 2046the Pope was delivering a historic speech to a joint session of Congress. "I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty," he told lawmakers. "They too need to be given hope."
For more information about the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless visit: www.chicagohomeless.org .
For more information on The Broadway Youth Venter visit: www.howardbrown.org/hb_services.asp .