Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesS. Mitchell was just 18 and the mother of year-old twin boys when her mother’s hours as a janitor were cut. No longer able to afford an apartment big enough for her extended family, the mother told her three oldest daughters they were on their own. All of them became homeless.
With 10 days notice, Mitchell called around for information and wound up staying in two adult shelters with her infant sons. “Adult shelters are not really good places for homeless youth, but I am grateful for the beds and the food that these places gave me,” she said.
After six months, another young person told her about Harmony Village Homeless Youth Program, where she found a stable place to stay as well as a mentor, life skills, financial literacy classes and a chance to finish high school. She is now a sophomore in college with a part-time seasonal job that has enabled her to keep her sons with her. Because she intends to become a teacher, she asked that her full name not be used.
“Next February, I may face my worst nightmare,” Mitchell told 200 business and community leaders at the 9th annual Breakfast with the Mayor sponsored by the Chicago Alliance on October 11. She will have stayed the maximum two years at Harmony Village.
“I fear that I may not be able to keep my family together. I might have to sleep on the train with my twin, 3-year-old boys. I might have to drag them from one adult shelter to another. I might not know where our next meal will come. There might be nights when my boys go to sleep hungry. I might have to drop out of college. I might not be able to get or keep a job because I wouldn’t have a bus card to get to interviews or a telephone to make calls. I face a fearfully uncertain future because – there is simply not enough housing or support for homeless youth.”
Mitchell said afterward that she fears she will erase all her gains if she becomes homeless again; she would like to go to school full-time in order to complete her degree quickly. Scholarships and financial aid will cover tuition but not living expenses, said A. Anne Holcomb, supportive services supervisor at Unity Parenting & Counseling, Inc. Holcomb advocates a dorm for homeless youth, since college education means that independence does not come for most young people until they are well into their 20s.“The youth are still not full-grown adults,” said Holcomb, who accompanied Mitchell. “They’re starting out on the bottom step because they don’t have families. They need support a little longer than some programs go.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel heard other testimony before his turn to speak. Mary Ann Coleman’s story focused on domestic violence. “Lacking education and wanting love so badly I was willing to endure abuse. Like many others I fell in love with a handsome face that turned out to be evil, with a smile that melted my heart and then inflicted garbage in my life.”
Despite threats and intimidation, she picked up her children at school and left, even though she had no idea where to go. “Imagine what it is like to be hit with your children watching.” Now in a two-year program at Family Rescue, she is preparing to take her GED; her 6th grade daughter and 2nd grade son are both doing well in school.Tiffany Willis, 19, was born with substance in her system, which led to her placement in foster care. She was eventually adopted by an aunt but separated from her only brother. Feeling unloved, she acted out and her aunt kicked her out, even as her drug-addicted mother bounced in and out of her life. She entered Teen Living Program, was discharged back onto the streets, and after surgery, went through an extensive appeal process to get back in.
Now at Malcolm X College, Willis is moving into her own apartment. “I always thought, ‘where would I go if I didn’t have a second chance?’ ”
Fred Friedman is a lawyer who advocates against stigmatizing mental illness, which first affected him severely 13 years ago. He lost his wife of 24 years, his 20-year profession and all his possessions, including the home he had owned for 10 years. He spent 18 months in a nursing home, 10 months in a homeless shelter. “I am sick and poor although I remind myself I am not as sick and poor as I once was, thanks to the Chicago homeless system.”
Permanent housing with added services as needed would rebuild the lives of thousands of people on the streets and sleeping in their cars, Friedman said. Yet the “housing first” philosophy – “where you look at housing as a tool rather than as a reward for recovery” – has never been fully implemented because of a lack of political will, he said.
“When I talk to [homeless service] providers, I tell them it’s their responsibility,” Friedman said. “When I talk to you, Mr. Mayor, I say it’s your responsibility. I am not going to tell you how to create the political will to make this but you have in your power to save thousands of lives.”Friedman had joked that he mitigated his nervousness by imagining he was talking to Emanuel alone. The mayor responded initially in a similar light-hearted vein. He also praised those who gave testimony for their fortitude. “There’s nothing I’m going to say that measures up to your strength, your determination and the endurance of the human spirit to make something of your lives.
“I want to thank you all for coming to breakfast with me and Mr. Friedman. It’s a better breakfast than ‘My Dinner with Andre.’…[the 1981 Louis Malle movie focused on a conversation between a talkative theatre director and an actor/playwright] but this is where Mr. Friedman and I invite you to our breakfast, the United Jewish Appeal part of this breakfast. We have more to do but we are on the right course. It’s not just our dollars and our cents but our values. We too have a journey to make and I want you to know your city will stand with you.”
Emanuel said that for the first time in a decade, the City will build a shelter for women survivors of domestic violence and their children. In addition, the City will invest $123,000 to give 3,000 women the assistance of courtroom navigators to help them face their abusers. “People can’t understand why women stick with somebody who is abusing them; it’s because they can’t think how to leave with children. They’re trapped.
“And we have added 1,000 beds for homeless youth and more important, wraparound services,” Emanuel said. “They’re getting on their feet, getting services, we’re reminding them they count…all in a difficult financial period where I am making other cuts.”
Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) Commissioner Evelyn Diaz said that the City will contribute $1.8 million for the domestic violence shelter from the settlement of its lawsuit against the VIP Gentleman’s Club – an idea that came from Emanuel. The City also donated $500,000 worth of vacant city land to the project in the southwest side Chicago Lawn neighborhood.Set to open next June, the Wings Metro shelter will serve 100 families in its first year. Another 10 permanent housing units will be built on-site as affordable housing for women who are ready to move on. The first floor will have an income-generating business such as coffee shop or resale shop, which will simultaneously serve as an employment training site.
Partners in the $4.2 million project – Women in Need Growing Stronger (WINGS), Metropolitan Family Services and the Greater Southwest Development Corporation – are continuing to raise the remaining $3 million. “It’s not likely we will meet the needs of all people who need shelter,” Diaz said, “but the fact is, for a decade we haven’t been able to add beds and now to be able to aid 100 families is a significant increase.”
Emanuel also cited a 4% drop in homelessness as evidenced by the 2013 Point in Time (PIT) count, “a testament that our work is making progress.” Other cities have seen their numbers increase, he said. There were 6,279 homeless people in Chicago – 5,060 in shelters and 1,219 outside — on the night of January 23, when cities across the U.S. participated in the federally mandated PIT count. This number was lower than the 6,598 homeless people in the previous count in 2011.
Advocates said privately before the breakfast that they hoped Emanuel would announce more City money for homeless services or housing. They are hoping for more outlays in his budget announcement October 23 and also his upcoming five-year plan for affordable housing.
The Chicago Alliance also presented its Changing Lives Awards.
Tom Owens, founder of the Cara Program that has helped thousands find employment with Chicago corporations, received the Champion Award for his assistance to individuals facing homelessness. Owens also started My Brother’s Keeper, which assisted families with basic needs. In 2004, the organization merged with the Emergency Fund, a division of the Chicago Alliance.Jeremy Nicholls of Cornerstone Community Outreach received the Fund Manager of the Year Award as an individual who has given exceptional help to families and individuals in need. Nicholls started at Cornerstone in 1997 as driver, janitor and weekend supervisor and has seen Cornerstone’s population grow from 65 to 400 daily.
Deborah’s Place won the Service Excellence Award for providing exceptional service that leverages resources to help clients move forward. The largest provider of supportive housing to women who are homeless, Deborah’s Place has recently launched a “portal” program for its alumnae that fosters a sense of family and extended support.
Becki Martello, a consumer of homeless services, won the Heart of the Alliance Award as a voice for others like herself. Martello has worked with consumer commissions within the Chicago Alliance and has advocated on behalf of homeless families and domestic violence victims. She has also helped with the central referral system, to provide people with a single point of access to housing.
By Suzanne Hanney