Seventeen-year-old Emily and her 1-year-old son, Jeremiah, are caught between the expectations of others and the reality of their own lives. On the one hand, the thinking goes, Emily and other teen mothers should live at home with their parents. On the other, if her own parents aren’t willing to support her, she should become a foster child and get access to the state’s network of supportive housing programs.
But Emily is not a ward of the state, and her parents don’t want her to come back. So, after fleeing Jeremiah’s father, who hit her, she spent a year sleeping on the couches of friends and distant relatives. She sought the help of a social worker, but, after calling around to numerous shelters and community organizations, the two concluded that there really was nowhere for her to go.
Staff at Christopher House, a social service agency in Lincoln Park where Emily attends a GED program and teen parent support group, didn’t want Emily’s full name used because she is a minor. But they say the mobility that Emily has had to grapple with in the past year is not unusual for young mothers her age.
In fact, of all the issues that young mothers face, the lack of residential programs for those who can’t stay at home is among the biggest, advocates say. With affordable housing scarce in Chicago, young mothers often have trouble earning enough money to rent a small apartment, and the transitional living programs that assist mothers over 18 have long waiting lists.
But the problem is even worse for those 17 and younger. In Chicago, no long-term residential programs can legally take them in unless they are wards of the state, and the only homeless shelter available for them has just five cribs. Mothers can only stay there for 21 days.
Securing funding for homeless teenagers has historically been difficult because lawmakers have bought the conventional wisdom, said Jill Garcia, coordinator for government relations at the Night Ministry, a faith-based organization that does outreach and offers shelter for homeless people. “So it was a circular thing: Everyone would say there were no homeless youth,” she said. “The question became, ‘How could we apply for homeless funding when philosophically everyone agreed there should be no homeless teens?'”
Garcia said the profile of homeless teenagers has been raised in recent years, and, last year, advocates scored a victory for homeless teenagers by getting lawmakers to put $500,000 more for them in the state budget. Now many want to see that money go to programs that serve parenting teenagers.
But how much of a dent the extra funding would put into the problem is questionable. Organizations that serve pregnant and parenting teenagers reported 761—or more than a quarter—of their clients were in unsafe or unstable housing, according to a June 2003 report on a survey done by the Chicago-based Center for Impact Research. The teens reported those living arrangements were overcrowded or dangerous, or that their parents had substance abuse problems or mental illnesses.
Susan Auman runs Night Ministry’s Youth Empowerment Services, which helps connect teen mothers with resources. She describes one 17-year-old who was trying to leave her mother’s two-bedroom apartment. More than a dozen people lived in the apartment, and crack cocaine was being trafficked in and out.
“There was little I can do for her until she turns 18,” Auman said. Because the waiting lists are so long, Auman did immediately sign her up for a transitional living program that takes teen mothers 18 and over.
Compared with older parents, teen mothers face an additional stigma that can limit their access to services, said Rene Heybach, director of the Law Project for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“There’s a lot of moral judgment placed on these kids,” she said. “They are seen as bad girls because they are obviously having sex at a young age.”
Heybach said she feels that conflicting attitudes leave these young women in flux. Society wants to exert control over them and punish them if they don’t live at home. But, once teenagers give birth to their own children, they are supposed to be adults. But that doesn’t always happen.
“A lot of adults, including their parents, abandon them,” she said.
It also is legally expensive and complicated to develop residential programs for teen mothers under 18. Programs that want to take in younger mothers would have to get licensed by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and would have to find a way to separate minors from adults 18 or over; regulations prohibit them from sleeping in the same areas.
In the last legislative session, advocates were able to convince lawmakers to allow homeless teens to be part of the category of minors who can be “partially emancipated.”
While this group can’t enjoy the full privileges of adulthood, such as voting, they can sign legal contracts, such as apartment leases. Roger B. Derstine, a Chicago attorney who represents several community-based groups that serve teenagers, said judges are generally reluctant to declare a 16- or 17-year-old fully emancipated because they do not like to remove or diminish parents’ responsibility to their children.
Youth agencies are awaiting state licensing regulations that will spell out whether partially-emancipated minors can be housed with non-minors.
But the real question, Derstine said, is whether any state agency has the “financial wherewithal to address this population.” Residential programs can cost between $6,000 and $70,000 per family, depending on the array of services they offer, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Social Policy Action Network.
Derstine points out that the state runs a network of supportive housing programs for the 1,300 foster children who are parenting. But he adds that, especially in Cook County, DCFS has been reluctant to take in teenagers.
Agency spokeswoman Jill Manuel rejected the notion that the agency would hesitate to take in any child who is being abused or neglected. The agency will investigate the families of any child who is the subject of a hotline call and, if it’s determined the child is in danger or being neglected, the department will take steps to ensure that child’s safety, she said. Few of those taken into custody are teenagers.
“We are not responsible for homeless teenagers,” she said. “We are not reluctant to take teenagers in. … But we are not going out to the streets looking for kids.”
Teen parents can also fall between the cracks when it comes to receiving federal aid.
The welfare reform act, passed in 1996 and implemented in Illinois in 1997, included an incentive to make sure that teen mothers either lived in safe, stable places: In order to get cash assistance, teen parents must live at home or with a responsible adult.
For those teens who couldn’t live at home, several states used welfare block grants to create Second Chance Homes, adult-supervised group homes or apartment clusters.
But not one of these programs was created in Illinois, Illinois Department of Human Services spokeswoman Tracey Scruggs said.
The department, however, already has a division that’s supposed to work with older children, including homeless teenagers, to prevent them from becoming part of the child welfare or juvenile justice systems.
When it comes to homeless teenagers, the main objective of Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services is to return them home or to find a relatives or friends they can stay with, said Melissa Wright, the division’s state director.
While it was originally set up as a prevention agent, Wright said these days the service mainly deals with crisis situations. A total of 13,000 clients were served during Fiscal Year 2001, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.