Ending Youth Homelessness in Chicago

Posted by Eva Green on

The number of youth who are homeless in Illinois has doubled in recent years. As of October 2015, the Illinois State Board of Education reported 54,638 homeless students compared to 26,688 students identified six years earlier.

In 2016, more than 125,000 people were considered homeless throughout the city of Chicago. About 9 percent—or 11,000—are homeless youth. They are hard to spot, sometimes, spending nights on a friend's couch whenever possible.  If there is room, their nights are spent on a mattress on the floor of one of the city's few youth shelters. Many of them try hard to hide their situation. They are hungry, scared and doing their best to survive.

“The misery, the pain, the stress, the struggle,” recalls Monikka Townsend, a young woman who was homeless for years in Chicago. She sits on a park bend on the city’s north side, wiping tears from her eyes as she relives memories of being homeless.  “It’s nonetheless real. It is really painful, but it’s like you’re by yourself,” she says.

Despite having no home, Townsend carried a full load of classes at Malcolm X College on the city’s west side. At the end of the school day, she would take a bus north to settle in for the night at a park where she felt relatively safe. As day turned to night, sleep was elusive—maybe for four hours total—always staying half-awake, wary of her surroundings.


“I’ve never met a person, a young person in particular, that has chosen homelessness,” Sol Flores says, executive director of La Casa Norte, a non-profit group that works with people of all ages experiencing homelessness. In her 13 years on the job, Flores says she has seen the numbers of homeless youth increase every year and the catalyst for launching the agency's Youth in College Program to provide housing for college students like Townsend who were homeless.

“The young people who show up at our programs and at programs across the city are trying to escape homelessness and violence,” Flores says.

The US Department of Health and Human Services says more than half of these youth report being kicked out of the house by their parents. 46 percent had been physically or sexually abused.

In response to the growing number of homeless youth in Chicago, close to 400 people turned out on Nov. 20 for Out in the Open Sleepout on Cricket Hill at Montrose Harbor.  Participants of the event left their warm homes and pitched a tent outside on the cold and snowy night to raise money and awareness about the plight of youth homelessness. Among supporters were homeless youth themselves. 

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“I was homeless for about one or two years, but still going to high school,” Marcy Vaughn, 19, says who attended the event.  “Everyone thought I was so stable, living with my parents and everything else,” he says. “But outside school doors, I’m outside on the streets.”

40 percent of youth who are homeless identify themselves as LGBTQ. Oftentimes it’s the reason they’re forced to leave home. It also puts them at greater risk while living on the streets.

“As a homeless trans-woman I was often sexualized, people would often assume either I was on the street prostituting or I was on the street just you know, trying to steal,” Marcia Wilson, 19, says.

Wilson often found shelter at a shelter in Lakeview called The Crib. Sleeping mats line the floors at night and are stacked into a back room during the day, surrounded by bins of toiletries and supplies for residents. One of the many challenges is the limited space.  There is only room for 21 young people to sleep there each night. If more youth show up seeking a place to sleep for the night, names are chosen through a lottery system. Those who don’t get in to the shelter are offered a bus ride to an adult shelter. The city has over 14,000 emergency shelter, transitional, and supportive housing beds, but it is not nearly enough to meet the needs 125,000 people who are homeless in Chicago.

As part of the effort to tackle youth homelessness, Mayor Emanual launched an ambitious program called Chicago’s Plan 2.0.  The planning process included more than 500 stakeholders, including over 100 people who had firsthand experience of homelessness. The strategy includes creating an effective emergency response system, offering affordable housing options and providing youth with services aimed to prevent future bouts of homelessness. 

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Resources are also being designated for supportive housing provided by agencies like La Casa Norte and their Youth in College Program that provides housing to homeless college students throughout the city. 

“This is actually truly a blessing,” Townsend says of the support from La Casa Norte, which have enabled her to exit homelessness. She’s currently living in the apartment provided by the agency’s Youth In College program. As long as she attends school full-time and keeps her grades up, she and other youth in the program have a place to live in apartments throughout Chicago. In addition to a place to live, La Casa Norte provides them with supportive services to ensure they have academic support, food, clothing and transportation. 

Townsend said the program provides the stability she was missing. “To be here is truly amazing,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to know that you’re coming to a home and coming somewhere you can call your own.”