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Hundreds attend Sleep Out for youth homelessness visibility, fundraising
by Matt Simonette
2015-11-22

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Nearly 400 people, about half camping overnight, showed up at Chicago's Cricket Hill at Montrose and the Lake Nov. 20 and braved the season's first snowfall for the first Out in the Open Sleep Out.

The event has so far raised more than $40,000 from over 700 people for 19 Chicago-area charities that work on issues pertaining to homeless LGBT youth, according to organizers. Donations at www.sleepoutchicago.org will be open through Dec. 31; there is a memo line to indicate which agency should receive those donations.

Kim Hunt, executive director of Pride Action Tank, and Ramon Gardenhire, vice-president of policy for AIDS Foundation of Chicago, opened with remarks describing the scope of work needed to address the homelessness issue, and the state's recent inaction in confronting it. Those two agencies, along with Edelman, agencyEA and Windy City Times, were the primary sponsors of the event. MB Financial Bank sponsored the stage.

"Over 20,000 CPS students were homeless last year, and only 400 beds were set aside for those youth, so we have a long way to go," said Hunt.

Gardenhire added, "We're now in our fifth month without a state budget, and many of those funds go to help those homeless youth."

State Rep. Greg Harris said, "What you are doing tonight is really wonderful," but urged the audience to remember that homelessness is not just a problem in Chicago.

The numbers are difficult to track. While Chicago Public Schools show that 22,000 youth are unstably housed (and that would go just through high school), other numbers track youth up to age 25. The state, meanwhile, shows about 21,000 youth who are homeless.

Of the 21,000 youth who are currently homeless in the state, Harris said, "About 7,000 are in Cook County, 7,000 are in the collar counties and 7,000 are in the rest of the state—homeless youth is a statewide problem. Every dollar you are raising tonight is filling an important need."

Ald. James Cappleman (46) said in his remarks that the final permits to hold the event had only been issued the previous week, adding, "They told me, 'Alderman, you have to be the one to sign the final request.'

"Think of all the youth who have to struggle time and time again, just to sleep inside," he noted. "We know the No. 1 reason that we have people on the streets is the lack of affordable housing."

Other political speakers include Kim Foxx, who is running for Cook County State's Attorney, and City Treasurer Kurt Summers. Foxx was there to speak about her own few months when she experienced homelessness as a teenager.

Treasurer Summers, who also camped out after the stage program, was passionate about the need to do more to fight youth homelessness.

Quinniya Hearn, who in 2015 won the title of Miss Voluptuous Diva, said that she was a survivor of homelessness, adding, "It's been a year since I've been back on my feet."

Hearn has a master's degree and is a case worker for wards of the state. But in early 2014, she and her young daughter ended up without stable housing. "I always found myself flipped upside-down," she said.

"It brings tears to my eyes to see the 'overwhelmingness' of all the people here," Hearn added, noting the significance of the evening's cause. "How can [young people] be the future, if they don't have adequate housing?"

Individuals who have been residing under nearby viaducts were invited to attend the event, for food and access to donated items and resources. Many did come over, watched a portion of the stage show, and interacted with campers. Some confronted Ald. Cappleman about the recent police sweeps at the Wilson viaduct.

Some advocates for the homeless also handed out "tickets" to attendees, as a representation of the tickets the homeless get for sleeping out in the parks. They want the sweeps to stop, and for the city to stop criminalizing the homeless. Organizers of the event had a petition out addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, calling for an end to the sweeps.

The Sleep Out was emceed by performer Fawzia Mirza, singer Honey West, and broadcast journalists Sean Lewis, LeeAnn Trotter and Robin Robinson.

Performances were by Christina Robinson; Lakeside Pride Brass Quintet,;Vanessa Davis; Sir Johnathan Blackwell; Lucy Smith; Jess Godwin; Asher Brown; Honey West; The Lighthouse Praise & Worship Team, with Rachel Pirani Brumfield, Elyon Tribe and Jesse Dean Stanford Jr.; poet RJ Eldridge; and, closing out the night, Sami Grisafe and her band, Matt Hines, Elliot Taggart and Mike Hussa.

Speakers included youth Kasey White; youth worker Altagracia Montilla; youth advocate Breezy Connor; Diane O'Connell of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; Channyn Lynne Parker, who spoke about her efforts to help trans women get housing; youth Mack Heard; and the Theresa and Mercedes Volpe-Santos family, who announced a new project that their daughter Ava is working on, Ava's Change4Youth, a parking meter donation project. Other youth also joined on stage to tell their stories.

There was a special tribute marking the Transgender Day of Remembrance, lead by Crispin Torres and Alexis Martinez. They read the names of the transgender individuals murdered around the world during the past year.

Beneficiaries for the evening included AIDS Foundation of Chicago; Care2Prevent - U of Chicago; Center on Halsted; Chicago House; Chicago Youth Storage Initiative; Broadway Youth Center; Illinois Safe Schools Alliance; La Casa Norte; Lurie Children's Hospital - Division of Adolescent Medicine; Neon Dorms - Heartland Human Care Services; New Moms; Puerto Rican Cultural Center - El Rescate; Task Force Prevention and Community Services on the Westside; Teen Living Programs; 750 Club Apartment Adoption Project; Night Ministry; Thresholds; Unity Parenting and Counseling, Inc.; and YEPP: Youth Empowerment Performance Project.

The team powered by Firebelly Design raised the most funds, more than $8,000 for Broadway Youth Center.

Additional partners were Ald. James Cappleman, Fight2feed (which provided the dinner and breakfast), PepsiCo, Best Gay Chicago, Pierce Family Foundation, Orbitz, Virgin Hotels, The L Stop, Streetwise, Back 2 School, Project&, YWCA, ChicagoPride.com, Vicious Muse, Citypak, Jean Grossman Torres & Dunkin Donuts Franchisees, Big Shoulder Coffee, Lifeline Ambulance, Center on Halsted, Graphic Image Corp, Big Fork Brands, American Red Cross and The American Indian Center of Chicago.

The Lesbian and Gay Police Associaiton-Gay Officers Action League and Organized Chaos motorcycle group helped provide additional perimeter support for the event.

Finally, after the sun rose over Lake Michigan and the snow turned to sleet and rain, tired campers gathered their belongings to head to their homes.

Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim was the event's executive producer. Danica Milich of agencyEA was the producer. Kathy Kuras and Sami Grisafe of Vicious Muse managed the entertainment. Fred Brennan was in charge of logistics.

The website www.sleepoutchicago.org will have the DONATE button live thru the end of this year. Make sure to indicate on the memo/note line which agency the donated funds should benefit.


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