How homeless Chicago teens are using social media to communicate

By Haley Velasco

Correction: The original version of this story published on March 9 incorrectly identified the makers of the Streetlight app. The app was not created by the City of Chicago. Streetlight is a joint project created and managed by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Youth Futures and the Young Invincibles, with grant funding from the VNA Foundation.

Homeless young people in Chicago are using social media to connect with each other and with services around the city. According to Chicago Public Schools, 18,831 students — or approximately 4.8 percent of the population — were identified as homeless during the 2015-16 school year. Programs that are providing services to homeless youths, like Teen Living Programs and La Casa Norte, have turned to social media to communicate with homeless youths.

Facebook is the easiest way for the program organizers and managers to reach young people, according to the sources we spoke to. When they don’t have access to smartphones, many homeless teens use public libraries as a place to use the internet and check their social media accounts.

“A couple weeks ago, I was meeting with a client here … we were supposed to coordinate about a doctor’s appointment and I was like what’s the best way to get in touch with you? And he was like, well obviously like Facebook,” said Jana Gillespie, outreach manager, Teen Living Programs.

“I love Insta,” said James, a 21-year-old resident of Belfort House, a South Side residential program for homeless young people run by Teen Living Programs. “I don’t have Snap[chat] because Instagram is like Snap now. I mean you can’t go live on Snapchat. On Instagram, you can go live.”

According to Pew Research Center, 79 percent of internet users used Facebook in 2016, which was up 7 percent from its 2015 report.

“We do have a Casa Corazon Facebook page. Most of our youth, if they don’t have a phone, are almost always active on social media,” said Emily Werger, solid ground and youth in college program coordinator, La Casa Norte. “Having that Facebook page to engage in case management and check in on youth we haven’t seen for a while has been very helpful.”

Streetlight app aims to help young people connect

Social media sites and services are not the only way that community services in the city are reaching out to homeless youths. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Youth Futures, and The Young Invincibles worked to create a more effective way to communicate by creating StreetLight Chicago, an app targeted to those under 24 years old to give them timely information about the resources available.

“[StreetLight Chicago] has been slow to get it out. You can set it up to get push notifications so like when Ujima [Village Shelter] had the fire, they sent out a notification that came to the phone,” Gillespie said. “That is the challenge. Getting the word out because you don’t want people coming all this way from wherever, using whatever resources they have to get here, and get turned away.”

The app provides information about health care, overnight shelters, drop-in centers and legal aid programs, as well as push notifications that warn about weather and program closings or changes. Werger added that in addition to word of mouth and social media, the app is a resource for the homeless community and she hopes to see more adoption in the future.

“There are a lot of comprehensive resources on there. Everything from where should I get medical care? To what drop-ins are open today,” Werger said. “I think it has been great for the community. I have seen some of our youth access the app when they have access to a smartphone and the internet.”

Werger noted that the concept for the app is great, and that she hopes to see it expanded and more services provided to youth in the future, such as the opportunity to reserve an emergency bed at more residential locations.

Photo at top: Chicago has created StreetLight Chicago, an app targeted to those homeless individuals under 24 years old to give them timely information about the resources available around the city. (Haley Velasco/MEDILL)