Last February, Candace Musickyouth development manager for The Night Ministry, which offers services to the homeless in Chicagoheld a focus group at the Home Run Inn pizza restaurant in Lake View.
The group, composed of homeless and formerly homeless Chicago youth, had come together to brainstorm the best way to create a unified youth leadership team that integrated young people from all of the Night Ministry's youth programs and worked to elevate youth voices.
The result: Youth 4 Truth, a 10-week leadership program during which the 16 young people selected to participate build professional development skills, offer ideas on improving the Night Ministry's services, raise awareness about youth homelessness and, most importantly to those involved according to Musick, do what they can to "leave a legacy" for the next generation of homeless young people that come to Chicago looking for community and support.
While the young people who participate in Youth 4 Truth are compensated, Musick emphasized her surprise that money has not been a priority for many of them. "They want to give back," said Musick, "They know what it's like, they're still in it, they know what they've experienced before they got to the Night Ministry and they want to be able to make the path easier and better for the young people that come after them, not only within the agency but also within the city of Chicago."
Young people between the ages of 14 and 25 who utilize any of the Night Ministry's youth services are eligible to apply for a 10-week Youth 4 Truth cohort. Because the Night Ministry provides care for both those who are currently homeless as well as aftercare for those who have found housing, Musick said Youth 4 Truth is a fantastic way to bring together a variety of perspectives.
The inaugural Youth 4 Truth cohort decided to focus their 10 weeks on creating a resource guide for homeless youth that are new to Chicago. The city has become a type of hub for homeless midwestern young people, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+. Musick explained that when many of the Youth 4 Truth members arrived in the city, they didn't know where to go or what sort of spaces were safe. So the group set out to create the resource guide they wished they could have been handed upon their arrival in the city.
Subsequent Youth 4 Truth cohorts have continued this work on the resource guide and have also devoted themselves to other tasks. In a recent meeting, Youth 4 Truth member Broderick Hill worked with staff members on creating new consequence structures for The Crib, one of the Night Ministry's overnight shelters. Determined to make The Crib feel as safe as possible for everyone, he worked diligently to create a clear, precisely worded list of rules and what will happen if they're broken.
Hill has really enjoyed his time in Youth 4 Truth. He loves that he gets to help people around his age who can relate to him. "Spreading information to people in my age group is vital," he says. He loves the opportunity to be a resource for them.
"[The young people] are super excited about leadership and advocacy and they take their roles really seriously," explained Musick. "They call themselves youth leaders in the space and they like to take charge in their different house meetings or different group settings and like to help staff get things done."
Musick has loved watching the young people involved in Youth 4 Truth grow in confidence and begin taking more initiative in their individual Night Ministry programs, but the effect has gone beyond the Night Ministry, itself. Youth 4 Truth has partnered with One Northside, whose youth organizer, Anna Mangahas, teaches professional development skills to the group. This partnership has encouraged many youth leaders to get more involved in advocacy. Some now attend One Northside meetings on their own. Two Youth 4 Truth members are even on the youth leadership board for the National Network for Youth. These two leaders get the opportunity to travel around the country to advocate for homeless youth, and they also participate in bimonthly conference calls.
Youth 4 Truth has continued to grow in scope, and Musick's main wish is that it continues doing so. She wants youth involved in as many aspects of the Night Ministry as possible, and she also hopes to plan a trip to Washington, D.C., to give Youth 4 Truth members an opportunity to meet with political leaders. ( They already take trips to Springfield. ) All of her hopes center around making the young people feel more empowered.
"I think the possibilities are endless," she said. "They're just so creative and energized and motivated and amazing."
*Note: Molly Sprayregen is planning to begin volunteering with the Night Ministry soon.