CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicago kids experience homelessness every day, with LGBTQ and children of color especially impacted — and more needs to be done to help them, advocates say.
Youth experiencing homelessness — particularly those who are LGBTQ+ or people of color — are often forgotten or overlooked, advocates said. In December, there were more than 9,000 students experiencing homelessness in Chicago Public Schools — and more than 500 of them were unaccompanied, meaning they aren’t in the custody of a parent or guardian, said Alyssa Phillips, an education attorney for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
More than two years into a pandemic that exacerbated issues surrounding housing stability, advocates want more funding so they can provide housing, transportation, health care and other services to youth in need. But the first step in getting youth them that help is getting them noticed.
“We like to call it ‘the invisible population,” said Paviella Foster, chief program officer at Howard Brown Health. “People don’t think young people are experiencing homelessness because they look like regular kids. They think it’s only vets and older people who are experiencing homelessness.”
Issues With Getting Help To Youth In Need
Youth homelessness impacts LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color disproportionately, and they have unique needs that need to be addressed, advocates said.
Forty percent of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ+, according to nonprofit True Colors United, and kids of color are also disproportionately impacted. These kids are especially vulnerable to family disownment on the basis of their identity, bullying, conversion therapy and other traumas, according to research by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Chicago organizations, including the Center on Halsted and Howard Brown Health, work to provide this population with unique resources, but there are gaps in the care these youth need, advocates said.
Luke Romesberg, director of Youth Homelessness Services at the Center on Halsted, said there also aren’t enough mental health counselors and other health care providers who are affirming and supportive of these kids’ gender, sexual orientation and expression. Such services can be extremely beneficial if they’ve endured trauma, he said.
“We still can be improving those resources and just providing more safe care where they feel comfortable [and they] have a counselor who [they] don’t need to explain pronouns to,” he said.
Those youth experience unique issues on top of the general problems that plague children experiencing homelessness.
One of the challenges organizations face is defining homelessness, Phillips said. Children might not fall into a government agency’s definition of homelessness — which can focus on how much time they’ve spent in a shelter or sleeping on the street — and then they aren’t eligible for the resources they need.
“The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness don’t go through the shelter system. They live doubled up [with multiple families in one space]. They couch surf. Those people don’t get counted as homeless …,” Phillips said. “There’s gonna be a huge percentage of the population who are not going to get the services they need.”
Another issue: Some housing resources are only available to people of a particular gender identity or with a certain health condition, said a Black Chicagoan who experienced homelessness as a youth. He asked to remain anonymous. The man was kicked out of his home at 15 because he is queer, but he didn’t qualify for certain housing resources, which led him to sex work so he could afford to survive.
“There needs to be some sort of bridged gap in between those qualifications and the actual resources that are accessible,” he said.
And even when organizations can connect with youth in need, federal programs sometimes impose a limit on how long organizations can provide services, Foster said.
“You get a young person into transitional housing, they can only be there 18-24 months,” she said. “I can work some magic, but I don’t know if it’s going to be magic enough to erase trauma for the last however many years.”
Looking For Solutions
Foster said one solution to help these youth would be to fund street outreach teams connected with groups focused on youth homelessness. These teams would help organizations find kids who may have gone unnoticed and connect them with resources.
“That street outreach team allows those folks to meet young people exactly where they’re at — they’re on the streets, they’re riding the buses, they’re on the trains. … And really talking to young people about the services that they provide on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
This system would create a network of care for youth across Chicago, regardless of what neighborhood they’re from.
Similarly, there should be programs that allow youth experiencing homelessness access to easy transportation so they can get to the resources and programs they need, advocates said.
“Providing transportation to young people … so that they can come back is important,” Foster said. “Partnering with other folks in the community so they know that this is not the only space that you can go to, and being OK that young people go to other spaces and not always want to come to yours, is important, too.”
Transportation was a big problem for the man who experienced homelessness, as he could not afford to easily get around, he said.
Living on the South Side, “there was always a transportation barrier. The resources that were transparent to me were up north, where I couldn’t access them easily,” he said.
The ultimate solution, Phillips said, is “affordable housing with wraparound supportive services.” To do so, she said, Chicago needs “an increased funding stream of affordable housing.”
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is working on a campaign called Bring Chicago Home to accomplish that goal. The campaign’s organizers are trying to raise taxes on pricy property sales, with the aim of sending the money that’s raised to organizations that provide care to people experiencing homelessness.
“We obviously need emergency shelters, and we need transitional housing programs, but I think sometimes we get focused on that instead of realizing that what we need is housing,” Phillips said.
In addition to all of the stressors that come with experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ+ kids and youth of color are especially at risk, often having experienced evictions, domestic violence and trauma, according to youth.gov. As a result, the solutions to their housing insecurity will look different.
“People tend to gloss over the unique specific experiences that happen for LGBTQ youth,” Romesberg said. “I’ve been through conversion therapy myself as a teenager. There’s different things you have to keep in the back of your head. You have to make sure you’re not forgetting that this is something specific that is impacting this group of people.”
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