South Side non-profit helps Chicago homeless teens

By Haley Velasco

Josh, 21 years old, wears dark sunglasses inside and a Cleveland Cavaliers snapback hat on his head. He aspires to be a fashion designer.

“I want to go to school for fashion design,” Josh said. “I want to be like a black Tommy Hilfiger. … That’s the type of person that I want to be.”

James, 19 years old, eats two hot dogs that he cooked for lunch. He aspires to be an engineer and to create amusement park rides.

“I’m getting my G.E.D.,” James said when asked how he plans to build amusement park rides for Universal Studios.

Both are homeless.

The two young men are a part of the residential program on the South Side at Belfort House, 3745 S. Indiana Ave., run by Teen Living Programs. The program provides services to young people between the ages of 14 to 24 years old who are unstably housed or experiencing homelessness. A young person can stay at Belfort House for up to 18 months where they are required to participate in chores, education, goal planning and more, to help develop them for the future. Belfort House isn’t Teen Living Programs only program, they also operate a drop-in center, 5500 South Indiana Ave., for homeless teenagers to visit during the day.

“The best part is when you finally understand that [living at Belfort House] is an opportunity,” James said. “I’m living here for free.”

“I have accomplished so much by being [at Belfort House]. I think it’s really a blessing for me to be here,” Josh said.

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.

“Teen and young adult homelessness is a very invisible problem for a lot of people because the young people don’t look stereotypically like what you think of when you think of a homeless person. They look like all of their peers and they act like all of their peers,” said Jana Gillespie, outreach manager, Teen Living Programs. “It’s a challenge to sometimes identify someone who needs resources and actually get them those resources.”

On Jan. 26, 2016, on the evening that theCity of Chicago’s 2016 Homeless Point-in-Time Count & Survey took place, there were 1,382 homeless individuals under 18 years old. These young people were residing in emergency or transitional shelters or unsheltered on the streets, on public transportation, in parks, cars, and other locations not meant for sleeping.

In March 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel created a citywide task force dedicated to addressing and reducing homelessness in Chicago. Named the Task Force to Reduce Homelessness, the task force works on improving the coordination efforts between the city and other departments to increase the efficiency of services for homeless young people.

One of the resources bundled under the Mayor’s task force, and a focus for non-profit work with homeless youth, is healthcare and access to services.

“If someone is homeless, their primary concern is not healthcare,” said Ornella Razetto, LCSW, social services manager, CommunityHealth. “It is not their secondary concern or their third or their fourth. For our patients that happen to be homeless, … they might not have the funds to make it so they may miss their appointments. … They cannot follow up with their appointments that someone who was not homeless could which further hurts their health care.”

Having funds for transportation is a barrier to entry for many homeless youths, especially those that visit Teen Living Program’s drop-in centers during the day.

“It is really challenging,” Gillespie said. “If we don’t have bus cards to give them then a lot of times transportation to get to whatever appointment on whatever day, they don’t have that access.”

Education is another factor that homeless teens are dealing with. To be a part of Teen Living Programs’ residential program at Belfort House, students must be engaged in productive activities including school, employment and life skills training.

“For our residential program, we say that anybody can come even if they don’t have their high school diploma or G.E.D. But if they don’t have their high school diploma or G.E.D., then we ask that that be one of the goals that they be working on while they are here,” Gillespie said. “We have a lot of youths who drop out of school in 9 grade or 10 grade, some because of situations surrounding their living situation, some dropping out because they need to work to make money.”

When the young people arrive at Belfort House, they decide if they want to work towards their high school diploma or their G.E.D.

“I just graduated last year,” Josh said. “I never thought I would do it to be honest. I’m 21 and just graduated high school. The whole lunch thing, the prom. That’s dope.”

Photo at top: Belfort House, 3745 S. Indiana Ave., is Teen Living Programs’ residential program for young people. (Haley Velasco/MEDILL)