Illinois Collaboration on Youth ( ICOY ) held a day-long gender expansive services symposium May 13 at the Chicago Teachers Union. The day focused on how girls and gender non-conforming youth are impacted by the juvenile-justice system.
One of the breakout sessions under the Pathways into the Juvenile Justice System for Girls and Gender Non-Conforming Youth umbrella was "Homelessness, The Sex Trade and Survival 'Crimes.'"
ICOY Trauma Specialist Eilene Ladson moderated the session, which featured panelists such as Broadway Youth Center Director Latonya Maley, University of Illinois-Chicago Sociology & Gender and Women's Studies Associate Professor Dr. Laurie Schaffner, artist/community advocate Antonio Gray and Youth Empowerment Performance Project ( YEPP ) Community Engagement Coordinator Ka'Riel Gaiter.
Ladson asked the panel about the connection that homelessness, the sex trade and survival crimes have with each other.
Gray spoke about being a transient youth who did not engage in the sex trade, emphasizing that systemic oppression is why some people become homeless and engage in both the sex trade and survival crimesdue to the lack of resources, oppressive policies and lack of knowledge and structure. Gray explained what survival crimes are, including robbery, hopping the turnstiles at CTA stops and other coping mechanisms young people use to survive.
Maley said young people experiencing homelessness turn to the sex trade and survival crimes to meet their basic needs. She said the juvenile-justice system taking them into custody perpetuates the cycle of homelessness and povertyand that leads them to do more things that cause them to keep going in and out of the system. Maley explained that many young people experience homelessness due to unsupportive parents so they take the risk of living on the streets or couch surfing and dropping out of school.
Gaiter explained that homelessness leads to survival skills that are not translated to the wider world and that makes it harder for those people to navigate the rest of the world. He said these youth's development is interrupted due to them experiencing homelessness and that can affect them for the rest of their lives unless they get the support they need.
Schaffner spoke about the higher number of queer and disabled youth who experience homelessness compared to the wider population. She calls it the juvenile legal system not the juvenile-justice system because it is not set up to help young people. Schaffner explained that she interviewed over 250 youths experiencing homelessness in Chicago and they said they engage in drug dealing, robbing, trespassing, loitering and the sex trade. She said places of business even call the authorities on them for stealing electricity when they would be charging their phones.
Ladson asked about the sex trade being framed as sex trafficking where there are victims when that is not the case for everyone involved.
Gray said that, for a number of LGBTQ youth he knows who are involved in the sex trade it is empowering for them; however, he added if they had access to queer-focused resources in their neighborhoods on the South and West sides, they might not engage in it.
Gaiter explained that he was a part of the sex trade from ages 11-17, adding he did it because he was looking for a place to sleep. He also said that, for some, engaging in the trade is a way to avoid systems that may have an even more negative impact on their lives, like DCFS.
Maley spoke about beauty being a commodity and using one's body to get the resources they need to survive. She also spoke about the danger involved in street-based sex work.
The conversation also focused on policies and systems that perpetuate going into the juvenile-justice system.
Gaiter said positive changes can happen if young people are at the table while Gray explained that identifying as cisgender heterosexual white man for the most part makes one immune to having the same behavior criminalized than any other group of people.
Maley explained that the recently enacted FOSTA/SESTA law that led to a ban on sex trade ads on Craigslist and Backpage did not stop the practice, it just made it go underground.
Schaffner said the United States has a long history of laws regulating sex and none of it has worked.
The day also featured welcome addresses by LGBTQ and chronic illness communities accessibility consultant Chuck Bernsohn who spoke about respectful and kind language choices and ICOY Juvenile Justice Coordinator Bex Leon who talked about framing the conversation.
"I was glad to see the interest in the topic of gender-expansive services from across systems and communities," said Leon. "I hope this conversation will serve as an entry point for many into creating and reimagining a world without the policing and punishment of gender non-conformitya conversation which must center the voices and perspectives of young people most affected by the juvenile-justice system. ICOY has been excited to be involved in helping to nurture this conversation as it is essential to improving outcomes for children, youth and families in Illinois."
Some of the other breakout sessions included "The School/Prison Nexus," "Domestic Violence, Abuse and Trauma," and "The Revolving Door Between Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice."
See www.icoyouth.org/ .