Homeless Youth

James, a former Ujima Village Shelter resident, is now in his second year of college and has reconciled his differences with his family. “When I was homeless, before finding Ujima, I was just lost. I wasn’t actively seeking employment or pursuing dreams.” James is majoring in Criminal Justice and aspires to become a Probation Officer or a Criminal Defense Attorney.

Unity Parenting and Counseling, Inc. currently operates four programs that provide housing and services for homeless youth. The Ujima Village Shelter provides emergency shelter and basic needs for up to 24 youth, ages 18-24, nightly. It is the only emergency shelter for young people located on the Southside of Chicago. The Harmony Village Transitional Living Program provides housing in apartments with on-site supportive services for 56 homeless youth and their children. Project Ignite provides transitional housing in scattered site apartments with supportive services for homeless youth and their families who have been impacted by HIV/AIDS. Umoja is one of only two permanent supportive housing programs in Chicago that provide housing in scattered site apartments along with intensive supportive services for homeless youth with disabilities.

Homeless youth are unaccompanied youth, ages 14 through 24, who are homeless and living on their own, without the support of family or a guardian. Youth homelessness is caused by: family breakdown (parental substance abuse or mental health problems; child abuse, molestation, and/or neglect; familial conflict; and family homelessness) and system failure (of the child welfare, foster care, failed adoptions; juvenile justice; and/or mental health & drug treatment systems). Youth homeless is not caused by the youth themselves. (The National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2011)

Between 1.6 and 2.8 million minor youth runaway and/or are homeless in a year in the U.S. (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2002; Research Triangle Institute, 1995). Youth who runaway from home for more than just a brief time are generally running from (like abuse) something rather than to something (like adventure). Around 5% to 7% percent of American youths become homeless in any given year (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2007). Between 6% and 22% of homeless girls are estimated to be pregnant (Health Resources and Services Administration, 2001). Nearly 46% of runaway and homeless youth reported being physically abused; 38% reported being emotionally abused; 17% reported being forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member (U.S. Department of HHS, 1997).

Between 20% and 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning). LGBTQ youth face a particular set of challenges, both in becoming homeless as well as when they are trying to avoid homelessness. LGBTQ youth face social stigma, discrimination, and often rejection by their families (frequently the cause of their homelessness), which adds to the physical and mental strains and challenges, which all homelessness persons must struggle with. Frequently, homeless LGBTQ youth have great difficulty finding shelters that accept and respect them and LGBTQ homeless youth are often at a heightened risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation compared with their heterosexual peers. Transgender youth are particularly at physical risk due to a lack of acceptance and are often turned away from shelters and in some cases signs have been posted barring their entrance to shelters or services. Bathrooms, often designated by cysgender norms, are a particular challenge for trans individuals in shelters and public places.

Kendall found out about Ujima Village after checking himself into a hospital for treatment for frostbite. He had been living in an abandoned building during a Chicago winter. In this photo, Ujima Village threw him a farewell party as he successfully left the shelter to go live in college dorms while attending a state university in Ohio on full scholarship.

In Illinois, it is estimated that there are 25,000 youth who are homeless, on their own, without their families. The Chicago Public Schools identified 2,647 of these youth who were homeless and were enrolled in high school. Due to limited funding, 93% of homeless youth are unable to access services including housing. The total number of youth beds in Chicago’s shelters, transitional housing, and PSH for youth is 374.(Chicago Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet, 2015).

Besides emergency shelters and day-time supportive service drop-in programs for youth, most youth programs are transitional housing. Presently, in the state of Illinois there are 40 agencies offering programs for homeless youth. Of these, 33 offer transitional housing.

Transitional housing (TH) is “age appropriate stable housing” for homeless youth. TH programs for youth are time limited, with stays ranging from six months to two years. TH programs offer intensive services including: case management, life skills, financial literacy, job readiness assistance, educational advice, conflict resolution, help with public benefits, and in many instances, on-site or off-site parenting classes and mental health care. Transitional housing is preventative: 82% of unaccompanied homeless youth residing in transitional housing in Illinois moved into safe, stable housing. Nearly 68% of these youth were either employed or enrolled in an educational program upon exit (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet, 2015). Youth who are parenting are less likely to have their children taken from them and placed into the child welfare system. Transitional housing keeps homeless youth out of trouble, reduces the likelihood of a lifetime of social service dependency, and helps launch them into independent adulthood.

Transitional housing for youth also saves government funds. The average cost for Illinois to incarcerate one juvenile for just one year is $111,000 (IL Dept. of Juvenile Justice, 2015). The average cost for Illinois to provide child welfare substitute care services for just one youth (age 17-21) for one year is $48,328 (IL DCFS). However, the average cost to provide housing and social services for a homeless youth in Illinois is only $16,700 (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet, 2015).

Out of 6,909 Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) units for homeless persons with disabilities in Chicago, only 20 (or 2/10 of 1%) are dedicated for youth. The City of Chicago has developed a Central Referral System in order to create a triaged, central waiting list for disabled homeless persons seeking supportive housing. In December 2014, there are 2,592 youth on the CRS waiting list, 497 of these youth identified a disability.