Erica Phillips was running out of options.
She wasn't exactly homeless, she said. She was a "home-free." She had places to stay, but those were not safe.
Phillips was 18 when she had to go out on her own. That was the winter of 2009.
"It came to a head when my mom told me that she could only love me at a distance," she said. "That's when I left."
For a while, a friend let her crash on his couch, but he had wanted sex in return. She had tried staying at a shelter once, but she couldn't sleep at all.
"This isn't as fun as the Little Rascals made it, or Huckleberry Finn," she remembers thinking. "This isn't Peter Pan. It's like… damn."
Phillips was precariously housed for about two years until one day when she went to get a meal from The Night Ministry, an LGBTQ-friendly service provider. She had not eaten in two or three days at that point.
Two workers asked Phillips if she might be interested in moving into someone's house through a new program. Phillips agreed, was accepted to the program and moved in October 2010. Today, she lives on her own and serves on the advisory board of the LGBTQ Host Home Program.
The LGBTQ Host Home Program (HHP), operated out of UCAN, is unlike any other approach to curbing LGBTQ youth homelessness in Chicago.
It's relatively inexpensive, requires no new buildings or shelter beds, and most significantly, allows youth to make their own choices about their lives.
"So often, when it comes to social services, young people have been so institutionalized, and they've had so many case workers and been involved in housing situations," said Bonnie Wade, who helped start the program and served as its associate director until recently.
Programs that serve youth, which providers generally define as 24 and younger, often structure the days and lives of the youth they serve, telling them when they can eat meals and what time they have to be home.
Wade said that structure works for some but not all.
"It's like a cafeteria, and young people need to come in and choose what option is best for them," Wade said.
The option that HHP provides is the chance to live independently, with support from community members.
In HHP, youth ages 18-24, live with community volunteers who open their homes to a young person for a year or two.
The setup is not based on foster care, a common misconception among LGBTQ Chicagoans. Rather, youth and volunteers are encouraged to think of each other as housemates with equal footing.
From the start, youth and volunteers set "house courtesies" together. UCAN provides some hosts with a monthly stipend, a kind of contribution on behalf of the youth to cover a portion of utilities and rent. Youth are responsible for their food, laundry and other needs.
During their stay, young people get support through UCAN and other agencies. They can find resume help, job training, support applying to college, counseling and other services.
For Phillips, who moved in with a family on the South Side, HHP was an opportunity to be both independent and supported.
"Host Home helped me be a lot more open about myself, about who I am and who I want to be," Phillips said. "They pretty much did for me what I wish I was taught when I was still growing up, like how to do laundry properly or how to do taxes or all these life lessons that you need to have at a certain age."
Erin Edwards and Liz Przybylski had been together a year and a half when the couple decided to host a young person in their North Side home.
HHP matched them with an 18-year-old girl who had felt unsafe at home and felt she could not come out as a lesbian. (Her name has not been included in the story out of respect for her privacy).
UCAN trained Edwards and Przybylski, helping them anticipate issues that might arise once the young person moved in. They were also given a phone number for a 24-hour support line, as was the young woman they hosted.
Edwards and Przybylski had read a letter from the youth, and the three met at the couple's home before deciding to live together. Still, the first night was a little awkward.
"Nobody knew what it would be like," remembers Edwards. "So there was this moment when we were all in the living room reading different things." Someone asked if Abraham Lincoln had really been gay, and they all started talking.
The three had a lot to talk about during those early days, said Edwards. They told each other stories about their lives and got to know each other.
But as time went on, their living situation became more complicated.
Edwards and Przybylski could see the young person struggling at times. She appeared withdrawn, seldom leaving her room or eating.
The UCAN training had prepared them for more blatant conflicts, like a young person swearing in front of a host volunteer's kids, they said. But the youth they hosted struggled with the opposite.
"That was difficult because it hadn't really been addressed," Przybylski said.
They could tell that something was wrong, but they didn't know what to do about it.
Edwards and Przybylski strategized with Wade on how to make the young person comfortable. Sometimes, Edwards, Przybylski and the young woman all cooked together. Other times, they worked in the garden.
Edwards and Przybylski also had help from friends and family, who made a point of inviting the young person when they made plans with the couple. One of the couple's friends also tutored the young woman as she prepared to take the ACT and work towards attending a four-year college.
Socially, the arrangement made sense. Edwards and Przybylski were both in their mid-20s, so the youth they hosted was close enough to their age that they could comfortably hang out. But, as much as the youth treated them like friends at times, she approached them like humiliating parents at other times.
"I had never felt embarrassing before," Przybylski said with a laugh.
"I thought, 'I'm only 25, and I'm this person already!'" Edwards added.
The youth's efforts to get into college paid off that year. She was accepted to most of the seven schools she applied to.
Challenges with HHP
According to Wade, most of the challenges that hosts and youth face in HHP are typical roommate problems.
"It's not just adults saying, 'Okay young people, get it together because your room is a mess, your laundry is a mess," Wade said. "We've had young people struggle with the adults being the one that leaves the dishes in the sink or doesn't sweep up."
In instances where young people and host volunteers are struggling, UCAN offers to step in and mediate. Host home staff or formerly homeless youth from the advisory board help both sides talk through issues happening in the home.
"It kind of flattens the hierarchy and puts the young person's voice at center," Wade said.
It also allows for flexibility not typically found in programs that house LGBTQ street-based youth, who often struggle with the transition from life on the streets to life in programs with strict rules about when they can come and go, eat and sleep.
Moreover, HHP is a long-term solution. Youth who receive services from UCAN can return at any time, even a decade later, and receive support.
But those advantages do not always resonate with funders, a problem that has sometimes stifled the program's growth.
HHP hosts just 10-15 youth a year, and number does not always wow foundations and government agencies offering grants.
"They want to see 50+ kids go through a shelter system," Wade said. "We were told by one foundation here in Chicago that they couldn't [fund us again]not because our outcomes weren't phenomenal, because they werebut that we just didn't house as many people as the other shelter systems. However, if you break down the price points, you see what you get for the cost of a host home is a fourth of the cost of what you get from a shelter bed."
But that resistance to funding a small program also means HHP will struggle to support more than 10-15 youth in the future. This year, UCAN has more volunteers than it does funds. It costs approximately $14,000 to house a young person in HHP for a year, money that UCAN is still trying to raise so that HHP can house more than 10-15 young people.
Since housing a youth, Edwards has gone on to work for UCAN. That means she won't be able to house another young person through HHP for now. But she and Przybylski remain open to the possibility of hosting people in the future.
"Some friends of ours will talk about this program and say 'Wow, that's crazy. What an amazing program. What a radical idea,' said Edwards. "I think it's funny that such a simple ideayou have a room, someone needs a room, matchis radical. To me that seems like the easiest of all solutions… And if you don't do the dishes at night, no one's going to kick you out the next morning. Thank God, because I'm the one who doesn't do the dishes."
Generation Halsted is an eight-week series that seeks to capture youth voices not typically represented in Windy City Times and other media. The young people portrayed have many housing situations, gender identities and sexual orientations. The series looks primarily, but not exclusively, at Boystown, where an influx of young LGBTQ people has been a source of controversy. Windy City Times will continue to explore the issues raised here beyond this series.
Next week: Learn more about Lakeview youth programs as we profile two local organizations: Center on Halsted and the Chicagoland Community Church (C3).
More on www.youtube.com/windycitytimes www.vimeo.com/windycitytimes or click the "YOUTH" tab at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com .