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Summit explores options for LGBTQ homeless youth

Tue, Jun 17, 2014

Chicago’s Plan 2.0 against homelessness has managed to marginally increase housing and resources for LGBTQ homeless youth, but complex issues still face the community. On May 2-5, Windy City Times hosted a summit entitled, “Owning Our Lives: Dream It. Speak It. Do It!!!” which sought to “shine a public spotlight on LGBTQ youth homelessness in Chicago,” as stated on the event’s official website.

“I feel like this is good timing – marriage is not the end,” Windy City Times publisher and summit host Tracy Baim said regarding the issue of unaccompanied homeless LBGTQ youth, coming after marriage equality in Illinois. Youth homelessness and senior housing remain unresolved in the LGBTQ community, Baim said.

Billed as a follow up to Windy City Times’ award-winning 2012 “Generation Halsted” series, a multi-platform document on the lives of homeless LBGTQ youth in Boystown, the summit proved to be an all-encompassing and all-inclusive discussion. Baim said that the sense of urgency for the event stemmed from “frustration from myself being a publisher having covered the issue for three decades. We need to shine more transparency on various projects. We felt the summit would bring together youth and adults to talk about larger issues that need solutions.”

Everyone from “youth, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and concerned individuals” was welcomed to participate. Each day of the event focused on different participants.

The May 2 events were open to and focused strictly on “youth 25 and under who have been impacted by homelessness.” Keyshia Laymorris of Chicago House and the Rev. Jamie Frazier of The Lighthouse Church of Chicago opened the day with remarks to a crowd consisting of many of the nearly 2,000 youth who experience homelessness in Chicago nightly.

A performance by the Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP) also precipitated the start of several “breakout sessions,” each addressing a track in which participants were invited to brainstorm. Topics included: housing, health, public policy, legal, job training/education, and youth in the systems, particularly the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
Saturday, May 3 consisted of similar breakout sessions directed at service providers such as non-profits and government agencies, and individuals including everyone from youth to activists. “I went to housing and jobs,” said Unity Parenting & Counseling Supportive Services Supervisor Anne Holcomb, who attended on Saturday.

“I’d really like to see them maybe concentrate on just one of the areas that they had breakout groups on. I’d like to see this happen again…this is a huge problem, and to craft a solution I think you need a whole conference,” said Holcomb. “I think it’s a great first step, but I think we need to go deeper.”
Saturday’s focal point was a closing panel discussion that included Juliana Harms of DCFS, state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) and City of Chicago Department of Family Support Services (DFSS) Deputy Commissioner John Pfeiffer, who also co-chairs the City of Chicago Task Force on Homeless Youth.
Harris said that retention of the 5% state income tax rate was crucial to providing revenue for not only homeless youth, but substance abuse treatment programs, public safety, elementary and secondary education.

“There is strength in numbers,” he said of homeless youth advocates who had crowded the state capitol rotunda the previous week. Legislators learned that only one-third of the state’s homeless youth were from Chicago, with the remainder equally divided between central and southern Illinois. In addition, laws will have to change to reflect contemporary families and relationships, so that all people are treated equally, he said.

Photo: From left: Nicole Sutton, John Pfeiffer, state Rep. Greg Harris, James Cunningham and Juliana Harms at the LGBT homeless youth summit. Photo by Hal Baim

Photo: From left: Nicole Sutton, John Pfeiffer, state Rep. Greg Harris, James Cunningham and Juliana Harms at the LGBT homeless youth summit. Photo by Hal Baim

Pfeiffer won applause when he discussed the focus on youth homelessness in Plan 2.0 to End Homelessness that had raised the number of shelter beds from 20 to 114 and created drop-in centers on the North, South and West Sides. Neighbors were not always welcoming but city officials spoke at community, CAPS and zoning meetings and “prevailed in most cases,” Pfeiffer said. “We will continue to make our case and we have the mayor’s support.”

“I was impressed with the social work leadership at DCFS. They have some interesting things I haven’t been aware of,” Pfeiffer said afterward regarding the summit. “The director of social work practices seemed to be very thoughtful and mindful of the special needs of LGBTQ youth in her system.”

The summit concluded on Monday, May 5 with a “report back” of recommendations to representatives from government agencies and foundations, politicians, donors and others. While a full report is weeks away, a preliminary overview of the summit’s findings released by its organizers states pointedly that homeless LBGTQ youth in Chicago “need more than a bed.”

The eight pages of recommendations suggested recruiting LGBTQ foster parents for youth in DCFS as well as a gradual phasing out of care rather than an abrupt end at age 18. Regarding health, they sought fewer barriers to signups for the Affordable Care Act and cultural competency among health care staff to increase privacy and confidentiality, as well as mobile and pop-up clinics for transgender health needs.

Other suggestions included:

* transitional employment for LGBTQ youth from social enterprises within the community;
* expanding housing options to include host homes, support for youth who are disabled, parenting, or survivors of trauma. The youth wanted housing across the city, as well as units for students attending college and access to any city-owned properties for potential collective development and living options.
Ultimately, the youths focused on “transparency and accountability” in programs and services, higher visibility for affected youth and the issue at large, and greater long-term investment and collaboration among the city’s people and leaders.

DFSS’s Pfeiffer said that summit recommendations will be taken “into consideration at the Chicago Task Force on Homeless Youth…[and] we’ll hope to weave in to our strategy going forward. So it’s very valuable coming together for an incredibly important group of people that we have to focus on more.”


Thomas Fowkes
StreetWise Editorial Intern
Suzanne Hanney contributing

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