Surveying the streets: the young and the homeless | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Surveying the streets: the young and the homeless 

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Antonio, a 19-year-old who lives in a homeless shelter on the north side, says he rarely sees his mother and only recently discovered who his father is. "My mother had 18 kids and not all by the same father. My mom and I don't get along too well. My mom would get mad at me and throw me out. I wanted a real life, and she wanted me to stay home all the time to take care of my brothers and sisters. She wanted me to cook, clean, cook, clean."

He joined a gang and started dealing drugs, though he says he's since stopped. "I moved around a bit. I used to be with gang friends. I used to stay over on Lawrence in this truck behind [a store]. I was there winter and summer. Some close friends in a building nearby gave me blankets in the cold. You don't want to be on the street. When you're on the streets you have nowhere to go and you're very cold. The first thing that runs through your mind is suicide or committing a crime."

Antonio is one of many homeless young people counseled by Donavan Burgs, an organizer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Every day he visits young people at shelters and hangouts, hoping to help a few find their way off the street. He fails far more often than he succeeds. "Homeless youth become homeless adults," he says. "I'm working right now with some young ladies--16 to 20 years old--and they all have kids. What kind of chance are those kids going to have? It's a cycle that never ends. People have to wake up and realize that we have a problem here."

The cycle Burgs describes is documented in a disturbing report called Alone After Dark: A Survey of Homeless Youth in Chicago, which the coalition released in June. Based on interviews with about 200 teenagers and young adults, the report describes the sad reality faced by kids without a home.

In short, they make a living, if you can call it that, by stealing, selling drugs, prostitution, or trading in bottles and cans at recycling centers. Most come from destitute families. Many fought with their parents, ran away, came back home--having nowhere else to go--and ran away again. They sleep in alleys and under park benches. They hate life and contemplate suicide.

In the report's conclusion the coalition calls on city, state, and federal governments to build more housing for homeless young people and to expand job-training programs. "If a youth has no home to go to, then you have to try and create one as best you can," says Burgs. "You want to create a haven for kids where they can go to have a clean, structured environment, where they can learn independent living skills and increase their self-worth."

But the request comes at a time when governments are cutting back. The city says it's dependent on the state for social-service funding, the state says it's dependent on the feds, and the feds are coping with a massive deficit. As a result, many agencies have to make do with donations and fund-raisers. (The coalition is sponsoring a five-kilometer run in Lincoln Park on August 1; for more information call Burgs at 435-4548.)

The report traces the rise in homelessness to almost 20 years of economic dislocation, during which the city lost 130,000 industrial jobs that "paid a living wage" while gaining only 69,000 service jobs, "which are mostly minimum wage, nonbenefit positions." Burgs says, "I have no problems with conservatives who say kids should work hard to better themselves. But I would tell conservatives that if you want those kids to function as adults, if you want them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you've got to give them some resources. No one completely makes it on their own."

No one knows for certain how many homeless youths (under 21) there are in Chicago--the last statewide estimate, in the mid-80s, was 21,000. But most experts agree the number is increasing due to rising rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and other factors that pull families apart.

About half the young people in the report cited a "conflict with family members" as the cause of their homelessness. Sixty-one percent said their parents were divorced, separated, or never married. Fifty-seven percent said they "felt neglected by the persons who had raised them."

Yet some young people are homeless simply because their families are. Diane Fager, a social worker and member of the coalition, says, "Some shelters will not take a male child over 16. You have tragic incidents where mothers, fleeing domestic violence, go to a shelter and are told that their oldest child cannot stay."

The report also found that 33 percent of the youths had been physically attacked during their time on the street, another 21 percent had been threatened with violence, and 20 percent had been raped or sexually assaulted.

The report's authors take a swipe at the state, noting that almost half the youths interviewed were wards of the state: "Unfortunately, in many of the cases, the state was no more successful in ensuring a successful independent life for these young people than the family of origin."

The most haunting sections of the report are the profiles of five homeless teenagers, written by Willie Cole, a local free-lance writer and TV producer. Cole describes Wendell: "He looks tired and older than 14. He's already been homeless, arrested for selling cocaine, and spent time in juvenile detention. He doesn't smile, as if he were hiding his chipped tooth--maybe he's shy or maybe he has too much on his mind to smile."

Wendell bounced back and forth between his mother's house in Harvey and a one-bedroom apartment in a south-side CHA high rise that he shared with a cousin, her daughter, her boyfriend, and two teenage brothers. "'There was never enough food,' says Wendell. 'I knew what to do. I told them I'd see them later. . . . I slept in vacant apartments for about two or three weeks. I was lucky to find one with heat, running water, electricity and a couch I could bunk on. But I couldn't keep enough food in my mouth, so I approached getting money in the wrong manner--I started selling dope.'"

Cole goes on to describe a typical day in Wendell's life: "He'd wake around 11 a.m., eat what he could, and then sell drugs until 3 or 4 a.m. Although selling drugs bothered him, his mind was primarily on how he could spend the money he made--if he didn't get caught. But he did. Referring to his pending court date, he says, 'They'll probably lock me up some more, I don't know . . .' He's worried, but he speaks unemotionally about his predicament, using words such as 'deposition,' 'probation,' and 'two counts for selling drugs,' as if that's terminology any 14-year-old would be familiar with."

Antonio, the 19-year-old Burgs counsels, says, "I've been in jail. The first time it was scary. Then I got used to it. I have uncles and aunts in jail. It's not that scary. I don't want to go back to jail. I have a strange feeling if I go back it will be for a long time." Burgs says Wendell's and Antonio's stories are all too common, as police and state welfare records would show.

Burgs says that with homeless youths "the self-worth process is screwed up. The kids fall prey to having to have the best shoes or whatever. I always tell them, 'If you want to be empowered you have to have inner self-worth and motivation.' I tell them, 'If you're 18 and you've been homeless since you were ten, you probably have more self-preservation skills and management skills than someone who's been running a business.' I know they have the skills to do anything they want."

Burgs points out that most homeless kids crave a normal life-style. Antonio, who has three children in Peoria and two in North Carolina, says, "I don't get really close to people 'cause they have died on me. My closest friend, Danny, who was with me since I was five, was killed in a drive-by. I was with him when it happened. I knew who shot him, but I never tried to get revenge. The police caught him, and he got life. I used to carry a gun, but I gave up on guns. I don't shoot anymore. Hopefully, I won't be crazy anymore. Everybody thinks I'm crazy, and I believe them. But I would like to get an apartment, get a job, raise my kids, and live a happy, uneventful life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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