A panel of speakers from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation came to Norris University Center on Wednesday to discuss youth homelessness and its systemic causes.
Sponsored by the Center for Civic Engagement, Sheil Catholic Center and Northwestern Community Development Corps, the panel featured people who had overcome youth homelessness. “What I hope you take away from this is a challenge to not fall into systems that depersonalize people,” said Father David Kelly, PBMR founder.
“We’re in a tiny little bubble,” said Weinberg senior Carol Li, who brought the panel to Northwestern. “We want people to learn about this issue.”
A theme of the event was that in Chicago, often regarded as the country's most segregated city, youth are often unaware of ways to escape poverty and homelessness.
“There aren’t many options, when you’re young, to get out of homelessness,” said Spencer Johnson*, a member of the CCH speaker’s bureau currently attending community college in Chicago. Some sell drugs, join gangs or rob people to excape poverty, he said.
Lorenzo Rowell, another member of the CCH speaker’s bureau, went to the only place where he could get help when he found himself homeless: a drug rehab center. There are only 209 shelter beds for homeless youth in Chicago, according to The Chicago Reporter. Many adult shelters will not accommodate young men.
Several panel members said that it was difficult to talk to friends in school who otherwise would not have known they were homeless. Playdates were declined and study sessions were called off because of the stigma surrounding homelessness. Homeless youth can struggle with social services and proper documentation, they described. Many do not hold the necessary documents or proof of address to acquire a state ID or driver's license. Completing paperwork can be difficult if they are living in situations that cannot be adequately described by checking a box.
“The hardest issue I had was keeping my home life and school life separate,” said Ashley Allen, CCH member who was homeless as a child. “Forming relationships was really hard.”
In college, Allen struggled to explain her situation to school administrators, and had to take on student loans. Now, “they’re starting to realize that everybody doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold when you go to college,” she said.
According to CCH, there were more than 17,000 homeless students in Chicago Public Schools during the 2011-2012 school year. That’s more than all the full-time Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students combined.
Causes of youth homelessness include family and economic problems, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Kelly said homelessness erupts from a series of “systemic struggles," including poverty, physical or emotional abuse and family members in prison. Some youth leave their homes after coming out of the closet to unaccepting family members.
Aside from the immediate need for food and shelter, homeless youth often experience vulnerability on the streets, difficulties in school and mental health issues. Kelly said that there is a shortage of mental health centers in high-risk areas.
Allen urged students to go into communities to learn about homelessness instead of in an academic setting. “I’ve learned more from actually being on the ground,” she said.
The audience was split into small groups for the last 30 minutes. J.D. Klippenstein, CCH community organizer, handed out letters for students to sign. The letters urged Illinois state representative Robyn Gabel of the 18th District to increase funding for Illinois homelessness initiatives.
*Names have been changed at the request of the source.