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Lockers key to survival for youth experiencing homelessness
by Tony Peregrin

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Lockers large enough to fit three carry-on suitcases could make all the difference to Chicago's youth who are homeless.

A new citywide safe storage program—the first of its kind in the U.S., according to Lara Brooks, director of the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative—will be placing its first lockers in shelters this month in Chicago.

"For young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability, access to safe and secure storage options for personal belongings—such as clothing, school books, keepsakes, and legal documents—is a daily, often hourly, stressor," explained Brooks. "Left with unreliable or infrequent storage options, young people hide their personal belongings in alleys, dumpsters, yards, under porches, in abandoned buildings, and bushes. These possessions—including those necessary for housing, employment, and educational opportunities—are in constant danger of being lost, stolen, discarded, or damaged."

A total of 250 lockers or storage units will be placed in an estimated 10 locations around Chicago by the end of 2017, with the first set ( 67 lockers ) installed at Ujima Village—an overnight shelter for youth ages 18-24 on the south side—this month. "The hope is that the program becomes a model for other cities," said Brooks, who has been working in Chicago with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness since 2004.

According to a report issued by the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative, there are no models of community-coordinated or citywide efforts in the U.S. that specifically support the homeless youth population's need for safe storage. The report, co-authored by Brooks, notes that adult storage models in Vancouver, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City and New York were examined while developing Chicago's Youth Storage Initiative.

The idea for a youth storage plan first emerged as a result of the Windy City Times' Chicago Summit on LGBT Homelessness in May 2014. That same year, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated 12,186 youth, ages 14 to 21, were homeless and living without the support of a family member or guardian.

"Access to safe and secure storage has both short- and long-term impacts," said Brooks. "For some youth, it means that they are more likely to attend job interviews and enroll in school. In our focus groups, young people described the harms and targeting they experienced moving through neighborhoods or on public transportation with suitcases and bags. Safe storage promotes mobility, such as the ability to attend meetings and appointments, and may reduce violence and other safety threats."

According to Brooks, Ujima was selected as the location to roll out the program because the facility has more physical space than all of the other overnight shelters in the city, and because the center also has bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. Program participants are permitted to store items such as clothing, toiletries, backpacks, documents, art work, photos, journals, baby items, and non-perishable food items.

"We hope to learn how to most effectively measure the positive impact of storage on the lives of young people," said Brooks, when asked what program organizers seek to discover from the pilot program at Ujima. "What does the flow look like—how often do young people want to access their lockers in a given week? How long will young people typically use the program? And how many young people will access storage as an "entry point" and feel more comfortable accessing overnight shelter services or case management?"

In some locations, physical lockers may vary in size, depending on the need and space available at each location.

Another form of storage—a secure cloud-based "locker" program—is also in development, which would allow young people a safe space to store and access birth certificates, resumes, and other documents. Brooks is hoping to pilot this initiative in libraries and youth drop-in centers during the program's first year.

"We've heard from young people that it was simply too hard to be emotionally present when preoccupied with protecting personal belongings," said Brooks, who was quick to point out that a locker is so much more than a place to hang your hat. "They've told us that it was difficult to participate in youth center activities, talk to counselors, or access healthcare due to the chronic stress and hyper-vigilance associated with protecting one's belongings. I believe the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative sends a strong and powerful message to young people: You are not disposable. Your belongings are not disposable. And access to a safe and secure place that is just yours is a basic human right."

Founded by the Pierce Family Foundation, Knight Foundation, Polk Bros Foundation and Windy City Times, the newly launched Chicago Youth Storage Initiative will include lockers installed in Washington Park, Englewood, Humboldt Park and the West Loop this winter. The initiative is being housed at the Crossroads Fund, which is serving as the fiscal manager and providing other support.

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