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First lockers for youth installed at Ujima Village
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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On Jan 16. workers began hauling in, unpacking and installing parallel lines of 65 blue lockers at the South Side location of Ujima Village shelter—a program of the Chicago-based Unity Parenting and Counseling—under the watchful eyes of Supportive Services Supervisor A. Anne Holcomb and Director of the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative Lara Brooks.

It was the culmination of a concerted and synergetic effort that began with multiple conversations about storage needs during the focus groups and breakout sessions which occurred as part of the Windy City Times Homeless LGBTQ Youth Summit held in Chicago in May 2014.

"We identified Ujima as a potential pilot for the program because they have the space and it's so important to have locker and storage access for young people on the South Side where it is a social services desert," Brooks told Windy City Times. "Considering all the barriers with public transportation, young people on the South Side have to carry and drag around heavy amounts of stuff in a much more chronic way than other neighborhoods with more plentiful service options."

The Piece Family Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation and Knight Family Foundation were each integral partners in the storage initiative.

"One of the things we kept hearing and was reinforced by providers, program leaders and the young people themselves was that this was a key link in the chain of services," director of the Pierce Family Foundation Marianne Philbin said. "If you have nowhere to stash your things that is secure, you can't make your doctor's appointment, you can't talk to a counselor, you can't make it as smoothly through school, you're not going to go to a job interview and you are much more vulnerable to being targeted as a young person who may not have the kinds of resources that others have. It's not only about meeting some basic human needs and alleviating some suffering, it's also about preventing violence. If you are identified as a homeless youth, it makes you a target."

Ujima Village client 20-year-old Momo has been a target for theft. Homeless for five years, she is the mother of a 2-year-old boy.

"When I first came to Ujima, I didn't have anything at all," she remembered. "Ujima had helped me with a bunch of clothes. I had to take them outside and stash them and, when I came back one day, all my stuff, all my baby clothes were gone and I had to start all over."

Forrest, 24, agreed. He has been homeless for two years.

"We miss job opportunities because we have to carry our luggage around and then, when we try to stash it somewhere, it gets lost and stolen," he said. "It's all we have. To have a safe place to put it opens up more doors."

"We're going to be open 12 hours per week in the day in four-hour shifts so the youth can access the lockers around their schedules," Holcomb said.

Ujima will also be conducting outreach to two local high schools who have a large number of youth experiencing homelessness. "Unaccompanied high school youth who would not be staying here in the shelter can get a locker," Holcomb noted. "This is an important way of reaching youth that we do not have coming to our shelter."

It is just the beginning.

"We see this in three phases," Philbin said. The first was the research, planning and fundraising. The second is the preliminary installations. The third is looking for viability and reality around the idea of freestanding storage and laundry centers that could be located near to public transportation and hubs where young people go for services. If you are dreaming big, they could be staffed by people who are coming out of homelessness and have an affinity and commitment to working in this area."

The goal of 250 lockers in 10 locations by the end of 2017 is just one facet of a comprehensive effort to meet needs both physical and virtual.

"We're really excited to partner with Google on some virtual storage ideas around how to equip young people with more resources to store important documents, mail, copies of leases, certificates, diplomas, resumes and cover letters so that they have those in a secure cloud," Brooks said.

"This could be a social enterprise that employs people as well as providing services," Philbin added.

For the present and for Momo, the lockers could not have come at a better time.

"They are decent enough to keep me and my baby's stuff in there," she said. "Every homeless youth needs to be acknowledged. We all need help. We're just struggling. We're in a hole right now. We just need a push to get up out of there."

"This is enough space," Forrest said with a smile. "These programs help us find ourselves again. To regrow. We've got to start from somewhere."

"This has made an incredible difference," Holcomb said. "I have worked with homeless youth in Chicago since 1994. Along with transportation and housing, a safe place to store your stuff has been in the top three consistently. It's one of those things that can eliminate immediate suffering. I've worked with youth who had all their dead mother's pictures on their cell phone and then it was stolen. There is a young man who had a stress fracture of two ribs. He is a small guy carrying around this huge backpack with everything that he was always afraid to stash somewhere. These are the kinds of issues that you have."

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