The number of homeless American youth has seen a steep increase in recent months. Here’s a look into the problem through the lens of Chicago’s homeless young males.
After finishing middle school, a North Side boy named Shawn decided to go on a year-long road trip with his father, who had separated from his mother when the boy was still quite young. Turns out that journey with his father, a truck driver, completely sobered his perspective on life.
“I used to do a lot of dumb things but now, ever since I’ve talked to my dad,” Shawn said, “it’’s crazy. Basically, my mind’s stuck on success.”
But when the 18-year-old returned home one last July, he was on the move again, this time with his mother and two siblings. Unable to pay rent, his family left their house and bounced among five different family members’ homes.
“One of the main problems is that our family members have kids and they want us to do everything like we’re maids,” said Shawn, whose last name has been withheld at his counselor’s request. “The people we thought we could count on weren’t there. They were there but they weren’t there.”
The family moved to the Silvia Center at Cornerstone Community Outreach, West Wilson Street and North Clifton avenues, soon afterwards, and have been staying there since mid-October.
“We all didn’t want to come here,” he said. “This was like the place we were trying to avoid.”
A national epidemic
Nationally, the number of homeless youth has seen a steep increase in recent months. A study released by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that a record number – more than 1.1 million minors – experience homelessness in the U.S., marking a 10 percent increase from the previous school year.
In Illinois, as many as 25,000 youth experience homelessness annually, according to a 2005 University of Illinois report. It is expected that number only increase, and dramatically so, during the financial meltdown across the nation and locally.
Young homeless men in Chicago form a significant part of this population, according to experts, and are considered more vulnerable to homelessness due to their sex and age. Families are more likely to kick out teen boys because they are seen as more able to survive on their own, compared to women or younger children, said AJ Jimenez, former caseworker at Cornerstone Community Outreach Center.
“If you have a family of six living on a single part-time salary, you got to cut somewhere, and teenage boys are the first place to cut,” he said.
These teenage boys that are separated from their families become part of crowd of homeless adolescents called “unaccompanied youth.” According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, more than 10,000 unaccompanied youth – actually from ages 14 up to 21 – live on the streets of the city, comprising 9.2 percent of Chicago’s homeless population. Left without their families, young men gravitate towards cliques or gangs for support, according to Jimenez.
“One of the reasons we fight so hard to keep families together is because the closer young homeless males can be to their families, the fewer chances they’re going to rely on their street brothers,” he said.
The struggle for young men to find shelters and resources tailored to their unique needs is exacerbated due to the stigmatization of their age and sex.
Rafael Hernandez, a La Casa Norte social worker, said prejudicial assumptions about young men from certain neighborhoods – particularly young black or Hispanic men from the South and West Sides – hinders them from seeking upward mobility.
“There’s a stigma around these young men in terms of playability, reliability, background, where they’re coming from, what kinds of baggage they’re bringing with them,” Hernandez said.
Many think that these men become homeless due to a “youth culture that hasn’t integrated itself effectively into the mainstream,” he said.
The overrepresentation of young men involved as perpetrators or victims of gun violence may also contribute to that prejudice, said Maura McCauley, director of Homelessness Prevention and Policy at the Chicago Department of Family Support and Health Services.
“I think when people think of poverty and homelessness and young men, they associate that with violence,” she said.
The majority of the dozens of homeless shelters in Chicago are aimed at families and single adults older than 18. Although some shelters do open their doors to families with teenage boys, they are often reluctant to do so due to their perceived lack of success at re-entering society, Jimenez said.
Government funding for shelters is contingent upon the percentage of increased income and successful housing rates of former residents, he added. Because many shelters find it challenging to successfully find housing and work for young men after they are released, they may break up families with teenage boys because they are perceived as more problematic than other populations.
“It’s hard to quantify what a success rate is because we do get successfully housed and may lose that housing six months later, be evicted and be right back in a homeless shelter, although that would be considered a successful outcome,” Jimenez said.
Hernandez also cited shelters for their hesitancy to focus efforts on residents that are not as likely to be “productive.” He said although shelters should expect that residents will generate revenue or go to school, young men simply are not as employable as older demographics. According to a 2011 policy brief by the International Labor Organization, youth are almost three times more likely to be unemployed as adults, and face a higher risk of working poverty than adults.
Attaching funding to outcomes can prevent shelters from treating homelessness as a traumatic experience that youths from which need to heal, said Mary Foy, chief development officer of Teen Living Program.
Doing so “takes from the therapeutic work we’re doing,” she said. “For young men, there is some social pressure to be more self-reliant, to appear tougher, particularly when they’re in vulnerable situations.”
Even after being accepted at the shelter, Shawn said he still cannot relax completely. “You gotta be very aware of your surroundings. You can’t trust anybody, you can’t really talk to everybody,” he said.
Education and employment
Young homeless men often come from unstable families saddled with issues like abuse, neglect and addiction, or their families may simply be unable to support them financially – unable to break from a cycle of faulty education and deep poverty.
As a result, many miss out on years of school as they migrate through various transitional homes. According to Chicago Public Schools, the number of CPS students identified as homeless or precariously housed has increased by 8 percent from 2012 to 2013, from 17,225 students to 18,669.
“We have a lot of teenage boys who don’t finish 8th grade until the age of 16 or 17 just because they’ve been moved around so much throughout their childhood,” Jimenez said.
The lack of parallel curricula between schools in CPS also drags on their educational trajectory. Often, the credits required for one school do not match those for another school, forcing the student to spend more time trying to fulfill basic requirements.
“Odds are that he’s been moved around four, five times to different schools and you’re looking at five, six years in the high school system, and he becomes frustrated and decides to quit,” Hernandez said.
Employment also proves elusive for young homeless men who may not be viewed as credible workers due to their lack of a permanent address. Many also do not possess proper identification documents such as birth certificates, state identifications, a driver’s license or social security cards, which can stand in the way of obtaining education, employment and medical services.
Jimenez emphasized that enhancing mental health care for young homeless men is crucial, as many grapple with anger and depression issues – stress resulting from the inability to take care of other family members.
Although Shawn continues to struggle with his anger at times, he said he has calmed down after arriving at the shelter. Finances are constantly on his mind, so he’s determined to enroll in Job Core, a free education and training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor that helps clients earn their GED and learn vocational skills.
“It’s kind of hard for me to just leave my mom to go off to Job Core,” he said. “But … if I go off to Job Core, it’s better off for (my family) – not just bettering myself but better off for us.”
Breaking the cycle
Although the Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that a special fund supposed to be set up to better the lives of youth was never actually established, the City of Chicago has expanded its efforts to tackle youth homelessness in recent years.
In August 2012, Mayor Emanuel implemented Plan 2.0 – an effort that followed former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “Plan to End Homelessness” – investing $2.5 million into increasing services for homeless adults and youth in Chicago.
Among other policies, the plan has created a network of drop-in centers and 74 new shelter beds for 18 – to 24 year-olds across the city, McCauley said. Still, the need is clearly much greater than 74 beds.
One program headed by the city, One Summer Plus, provided part-time jobs and mentors last year to young men in 13 CPS schools located in high-violence neighborhoods. According to a 2012 study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, there was a 51 percent decrease in violent crimes among participants in the effort compared to a control group of youths in the same areas that had not partaken in the program.
“Sometimes, preventing homelessness in youths and giving youths opportunities can pre-empt the other problems we have,” said Matt Smith, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. Such programs emphasize not only a remedial but preventative approach to youth homelessness, he said.
Recent policies have also pushed against this latent discrimination targeting young homeless men.
Under the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, shelters cannot discriminate against families based on family composition or marital status, and must accept families with children up to the age of 18 if they want to receive federal and state funding.
La Casa Norte, the only shelter in Chicago for men aged 16 to 21, tries to help young homeless males determine their employment goals and build resumes, in addition to connecting them to various job placement programs. The shelter also offers courses aiming to teach residents general life skills such as anger management and cooking to smooth their transition into adult life.
“When you see these guys come in, these young men – they want to work, they want to go to school, they want to be doing something,” Hernandez said. “We meet our clients where they’re at, but we want to help them … to get them where they’re going.”
“The reality is that they’re not ‘homeless,’ just people without homes, and I believe they should be treated as such,” he said.