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Homeless moms get help to be the parents they want to be

Fri, Jun 13, 2014

Being a teen mom is an added layer for homeless youth who have already experienced many obstacles to fulfilling their life’s goals but, “the moms we work with love their children, they want to be great moms. They want to develop their parenting skills,” says Marguerite M. Wickman, director of outreach, prevention and aftercare at Teen Living Programs (TLP), an agency on the South Side that serves adolescents and young adults experiencing homelessness. TLP offers a wide range of residential, outreach and supportive services.

TLP also runs one of four drop-in centers across Chicago sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel since adoption of Plan 2.0 addressing homelessness in August 2012. TLP’s drop-in center in central Bronzeville opened in April 2013 and provided 2500 units of service through December, even reaching 350 unduplicated new people age 18-24.

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Besides providing traditional social services six days a week, the center accomplishes its goals through programs as simple as 11 a.m. –noon daily “Coffee Talk,” where the young people chat about current events, celebrities, or whatever interests them; or “Cereal and Cartoons” from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

The latter attracts not just teen moms and their kids (who are a small subset of the drop-in center’s overall clientele), but the gamut of unaccompanied homeless youth age 18 to 24, Wickman said. The youth get a chance to rest and have a meal, to work on a resume or homework, or talk to a counselor while their children are in a safe place. They also have a chance to break their isolation and to share trials and tribulations, she said.

“By expanding access points in the neighborhood, we make ourselves more available,” Wickman said. “The nice thing about a drop-in center, instead of saying, ‘We will be at this street outreach site between 2 and 6,’ this drop-in center is open six days a week. You can come between 10 and 6 six days a week as you need it. It’s immediate access vs. when someone is in crisis, ‘Make an appointment, we’ll see you next week,’ which doesn’t work as well.”

Since March, however, the drop-in center has been on an appointment basis as it prepared for a move early this month to the basement of New Life Covenant Church, 5517 S. Michigan Ave., just off the CTA Green Line.

Under the guidance of the Chicago Task Force on Homeless Youth, the four drop-in centers and six shelters provide what is called “low-threshold” services, which meet the young people where they are with no demands. Others may be ready for “high-threshold” transitional housing, which has more rules and expectations. The priority is to build relationships and the foundation is a hierarchy of needs.

“It starts with ‘what do you need, how can I help you? What will make you feel safe?’”

“That is what gets someone who has been potentially engaged in oppressive systems for a really long time a change of perspective about what can be available to them,” Wickman said.

“A lot of the young people we work with have chronic histories of instability, some sort of violence or lack of safety in their home environment,” she added. Others have been hurt in the foster care system.

“What makes us different is that the first thing before we ever ask anything of them is to show them consistent demonstrations that we care for them,” Wickman said. The program does not demand that they set goals for going back to school or finding a job (although some of the homeless youth do work and/or go to school even while they stay with friends, in shelters or in abandoned buildings).

Instead, Wickman said, the drop-in centers say “welcome to this space. This is what we can provide you. Are you interested in meeting with someone to become job-ready? In advocacy and support to enroll in an education program? Are you interested in tutoring, in a vocational training program or do you just need to feed yourself?”

Just the same, rules posted on the wall tell the young people to maintain behavior that keeps the drop-in center safe for everyone. No disrespectful, threatening or derogatory language. No gang symbols or music and videos with explicit content. No drugs, alcohol or weapons. No violent or sexual physical contact, including rough housing or wrestling.

The drop-in center has a nurse practitioner who can teach mindfulness and life skills around reproductive health. The young people can also receive help in accessing government benefits such as health insurance or even in obtaining a replacement state identification cards without paying hefty fees – particularly helpful if they have been in 18 different houses over the course of several years and they can’t go home because they have been locked out.

Wickman said young moms who come to the program view their children as sources of resiliency and love, which strengthen their reasons for being.

“A lot of the parents we work with love being parents and want to be really good ones. I think maybe they see the opportunity to strive to be the kind of parent they didn’t get and an opportunity to provide love and support to their children.”

“I think they see it as a source of strong relationships they get to have in their lives, where they get to be responsible, be caregivers. There’s a lot of pride associated with that.

Being a parent, even when you have endless resources, can be wildly stressful and somewhat isolating. It’s even more so when you do not have those connections. What we try to do is provide connections for these mothers so they do not feel they are alone in this monumental responsibility.”

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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