As we have braved the frigid weather over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of attention on the homeless encampments that sprinkle the highways and various parts of the city.

Good Samaritans have been purchasing hotel rooms for those who reside in the encampments. Coats and heaters are being taken to them as well. It’s a feel-good story for everyone, but I believe the same energy needs to be put into finding safe housing options for residents of the encampments year-round. And that we should acknowledge youth homelessness and how that number is creeping up.

I worked in a homeless youth shelter on the South Side of Chicago for seven years. Young people from all walks of life would visit the shelter, staying for days, sometimes months. I learned a lot during my tenure. The big takeaway was more times than not their issues with housing instability had more to do with access to resources than anything.

Something else that was prevalent amongst our clients – which also shows up in the adult homeless population—was mental health issues that hadn’t been diagnosed or treated. That’s access to health care issue, not a housing issue.

On the rare occasion that we were able to get young people from the shelter to a clinician, we saw great strides in their mental health. And that should be the goal with everyone who exhibits signs of needing mental health care.

Other factors that lead to youth coming through our doors were the untimely death of a family matriarch or issues around sexual identity. Grandmas and Grandpas died supporting three generations of family in their homes. This would not just leave the young person homeless but their parents as well. And we all know how growing up Baptist or Catholic in a Black or Brown household meant that sometimes if you’re a part of the LGBTQ community, you might find it easier to fend for yourself on the streets, than your childhood home.

 When you start to talk about how we fix this, I would say the first step is to increase the funding to agencies that provide overnight housing for our unhoused youth. An increase in funding would allow an organization like Ujima Village Youth Shelter to operate 24 hours, and provide the service connections that our young people desperately need.  

Following that with a city lead effort to increase the number of SRO  (Single Room Occupancy) buildings in the city to account for those who aren’t capable of paying full market rent for a 1BR or studio.

Now when it comes to single-occupancy buildings a lot of NIMBY resentment starts to bubble up. But what’s missing in this is the fact that those looking to move into an SRO room are removing one more person from underneath the viaduct or the side of the highway.

So, next time when you’re turning your heat up and rubbing your hands after touching your window pane. You can sleep a little better knowing that one less person is out there.

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