[Photo of a young woman holding a baby] The Night Ministry’s youth programs provide a lifeline to homeless and precariously housed young people, including pregnant and parenting mothers.
For many of us, our teenage and young adult years are a time of self-discovery and self-fulfillment. We come into our own as we finish high school, go on to college, start a career, and begin to build the lives we dream for ourselves.
But to millions of young Americans who experience homelessness and housing instability, these achievements often appear unobtainable. Instead of studying for tomorrow’s midterm, they are worried about finding a safe place to sleep tonight. Wondering where your next meal is coming from is more of a reality for many than choosing which college to apply for or weighing a job offer.
The Night Ministry has been offering a lifeline to homeless and precariously housed young people since the 1980s, when we began outreach on the streets of Chicago and started to build innovative programs that provide safe shelter and a pathway to permanent housing. Last year, we housed 399 homeless youth and 43 of their children.
This month, the initial findings from the first comprehensive national study on the prevalence of youth homelessness in the United States are being released. The Voices of Youth Count, a research and policy initiative launched by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, is providing the most accurate count of the number of homeless and runaway youth to date as well as a deeper understanding of the experience of youth homelessness in America.
The Voices of Youth Count confirms what The Night Ministry has understood for some time about factors that contribute to homelessness among teens and young adults, including three characteristics that put young people at higher risk of experiencing homelessness: being pregnant or parenting, identifying as LGBTQ, and lacking a high school degree. The research also points to the benefits of addressing the specific needs of young people in these populations. At The Night Ministry, we are doing just that on a daily basis through our youth outreach efforts and our five youth housing programs.
In the 1990s, our Open Door Youth Shelter welcomed young mothers and fathers with children. In 2007, The Night Ministry launched the Response-Ability Pregnant and Parenting Program (RAPPP) to provide 120 days of housing for young mothers and their children. The only shelter in the city of Chicago that reserves beds for homeless parenting and pregnant mothers as young as 14, RAPPP offers a safe and nurturing environment that fosters stability and positive parenting skills.
Rejection at home begins a pattern of discrimination faced by many homeless LGBTQ youth. Once out on the street, they may encounter harassment at shelters and intolerance when seeking housing. The Night Ministry’s youth programs affirm the gender identities and sexual orientations of all those we serve. Our Youth Outreach Team connects with LGBTQ youth on the streets of Chicago, offering nonjudgmental support and identifying those who are at-risk of becoming homeless. In 2011, we opened The Crib, Chicago’s first emergency overnight shelter for young adults ages 18 to 24. The Crib operates as a safe haven for many homeless LGBTQ youth, and today it is held up as a model for its LGBTQ-competent services.
While homelessness and housing instability create barriers to academic achievement, we know that providing the space and resources that assist in the achievement of an education can help break the cycle of homelessness. Earlier this year, we opened the doors of a groundbreaking youth housing program. Phoenix Hall provides homeless students from Chicago’s North Lawndale College Prep High School with a safe, stable residence while they pursue their academic goals. Residents can stay until they graduate from North Lawndale College Prep, and they receive the support services in school, at Phoenix Hall, and in the community that help them obtain their high school diploma.
Researchers and advocates say the lack of a reliable estimate of the number of homeless teens and young adults and an incomplete picture of their lives have created significant roadblocks in designing policies to end youth homelessness and implementing programs to assist homeless young people. The Voices of Youth Count represents a significant step forward. At The Night Ministry, we continually examine the data we gather from our programs and listen to the young people we serve. It is in this way that we can meet homeless youth where they are at while offering them support to improve their lives on a daily basis.
Paul W. Hamann is President & CEO of The Night Ministry, is a Chicago-based nonprofit whose mission is to provide housing, health care, and human connection to individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty. For more information on The Night Ministry, please visit www.thenightministry.org.