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Homeless Youth

 StreetWise (USA) 11 June 2019

(Originally published: 07/2009) “There’s an unfortunate saying in the media: ‘If it bleeds, it ledes,’” says Anne Holcomb, organizer of the homeless-youth activism group HELLO, to a room of 24 youths. For the past five years Holcomb has led HELLO (Homeless Experts Living Life’s Obstacles), and in the face of severe budget cuts she wants people to know that “we bleed. We have blood in our veins, crap happens out on the street, life is hard, and we need the government and the public to pay more attention.”  - By by Ben Cook

CHICAGO, USA - Homeless youth gather once a month at Chicago's Lakeview Broadway Youth Center to share their stories with, a non-profit radio station compiling their experiences to make this invisible population's struggles known.

"There's an unfortunate saying in the media: 'If it bleeds, it ledes,'" said Anne Holcomb, organizer of the homeless-youth activism group HELLO, to a room of 24 youths, referring to the tendency of bad news to grab more headlines than good news. For the past five years she's led HELLO (Homeless Experts Living Life's Obstacles), and in the face of severe budget cuts she wants people to know that "we bleed. We have blood in our veins, crap happens out on the street, life is hard, and we need the government and the public to pay more attention."

HELLO is the longest continuously organized homeless-youth activism group in the country; some of the older youth in the group have been with it almost since the beginning. It's also at the mercy of Chicago's lean 2009 social-services budget.

The point of HELLO is to educate the public, policy makers, and the media about the needs of homeless youth, and to give the youth and young adults in the group opportunities to become active citizens, to gain self-esteem and self-mastery, to respond to social and policy issues that impact them, to be heard, and to learn life skills.

Co-sponsored by The Night Ministry and The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a total of 123 youth ages 14 to 25 participated actively in the HELLO during the last fiscal year (2008). Weekly Tuesday meeting attendance averages around 15-30 youth.  Beth Cunningham, a lawyer with the Chicago Coalition, also provides essential support and professional resources. Holcomb, formerly a homeless youth herself, discussed why she formed the group. "Homeless youth are often invisible to policy makers and to the public. One of the many survival strategies that homeless youth utilize is to 'blend in.' So the public will not see most homeless youth downtown panhandling (or 'spanging,' as the youth call it), holding a sign that says, 'Will work for food.' Homeless youth are far less vulnerable to predators when they look like any other youth walking down the street.

"Just like any other youth, most take pride in their appearances and express themselves via a personal style, so they don't look like the homeless stereotype. Also, just like other youth, they tend to hang out in groups. Relationships on the street can become very intense and serve as both substitute families and bodyguards (I would compare this to the bonding with one another that many soldiers experience while under fire).

"Some youth are runaways, but many more are throwaways. No one is looking for them. There are no missing-persons reports," Holcomb said. "Members of the public and even some policy makers don't even realize that homeless youth exist, [but] they exist in large numbers . . . and they need help."

Sarah Lu of has been working with HELLO over the past few months. Her goal was to record the youths' stories on certain topics, such as their experience with police abuse, lack of shelters, employment barriers (and how they acquire money when they can't find a job), educational barriers, etc. She hopes to edit these stories and send them to lawmakers to make them aware of the homeless youth community's issues.

Lu explained her involvement: "In traditional media, youth homelessness is not talked about much.  And when you do hear about [it], it is rarely in the words of street-based youth themselves. There is a sizable street-based youth population in Lakeview, and many Lakeview residents don't know much about it, even though they see the youth all the time.

"The idea behind the project is pretty simple: we believe that storytelling is powerful. We want to create a space for street-based youth to share their experiences and insights with each other, and we want the community at large to recognize their experiences and insights.

"I hope that the problem of ignorance about the lack of resources for homeless youth will be overcome," Lu said. "On the Lakeview Action Coalition's Fact Sheet on Homeless Youth, I read that in a given year about 15,000 youth in Chicago experience homelessness, and there are only 119 shelter beds designated for youth in the entire city. That's ridiculous. That needs to change. And I think if more people know about that, that's a step towards mobilizing people to make things better.

"I hope that the problem of media editorializing the experiences of street-based folks, of youth, of people of color, and of LGBTQ people in a way that is not accountable to these communities will be overcome. The stories you'll hear as part of the [Vocalo] project don't sound like normal news stories. They are not editorialized at all. I'd like to show journalists and other people who make media that it is a lot more compelling to hear people tell their own story in their own authentic voice."

Holcomb hopes that "every youth who participates will feel heard and more empowered as a result of their participation. Learning to express and advocate for oneself are life skills, so I hope they learn from this project."

On June 9, the 24 gathered youths of HELLO shared their stories and experiences with StreetWise.

One girl said, "The first time that I became homeless I was 13 . . . My homelessness was a choice. My family is Nigerian and Puerto Rican, and in my family, girls are worthless even though we are the breadwinners. I was the black sheep in my family and I wasn't going to go along with that. Me being a lesbian was definitely something I had to battle . . . my family [about]. When I was 13, my brother, who was 16 at the time, left, so I thought that there was no point in me being [there either]. So I gathered up my chump change-a little over two bills-and I got on the bus. . . . I had a lot of friends, so I had people to turn to. I graduated high school even though I went through all that out on the streets. I still went to prom, I still went to homecoming."

Another girl shared her story: "The first time that I became homeless, I was 17 and it was my senior year of high school . . . The reason why I became homeless was that my mother passed away from a brain aneurysm. I hopped between several different family members and friends, but no one wanted to deal with my grieving and acting out. So I thought I would take on the world myself. I guess I was happy that I had the motivation and pride to graduate despite everything. It was the most crucial time in my life. It's hard-you barely get any sleep. It helps that we youth stick together, though."

One older male talked about how he was kicked out of his home for being gay.

"I was in my junior year of high school and I had lived with my aunt and uncle prior to that. I had told them that I was gay, and them being older and from a generation where homosexuality wasn't tolerated, they gave me $40 and told me to have a good life. So that's what I did."

"At that time I decided that I was going to do every activity that I never could before, so I joined every school club available. I used to sleep in the school dugout at my high school until I got caught. Sometimes I had to sit in the office because I smelled really bad, but I still graduated 10th in my class. So, I came up north where there are homeless youth programs, and now I'm back in school utilizing the programs . . . I'm studying nursing. I'm still homeless and staying in a shelter, but I'm making it happen."

Another youth said, "I was homeless in high school starting when I was 14 because my parents were homophobic...My dad was abusive. I'm 20 now. Now I'm in a program at 37th and Indiana. It's hard to keep being motivated, because even if you do get money, you're not qualified to do many things as far as getting an apartment or getting a job. Someday I hope to be a case manager for homeless youth."

"It's hard to go day to day," said one young man who grew up in gangs on the West Side, and who talked about his life as if it was loosely held together with duct tape. "I don't have financial etiquette. We don't have any clue about how to be responsible with money. . . Even if you have a little money you're stuck in the middle between being homeless and trying to make it in the world.

"It's like people coming out of prison-they're stuck trying to decide whether to keep doing what they were doing or try and make it right. There's no one to show you how to make the step-by-step to put it all together and make it all the way. The system is incomplete. Right now I don't have the luxury of      bettering myself . . . I'm trying not to become homeless again . . . I had a job for two years, but I was laid off because of the economy. I wouldn't have had a job if it weren't for programs like this-they sent off for my ID, they sent off for my birth certificate, they helped me get my sanitation license. It helps keep your hopes up, and now I've had a place [to live] for three years."

He went on to express some of his frustrations with aid programs. "Even the programs . . . they make money off of us instead of us making money off of them. What can people do to help? We don't have to tell people what to do to help. It should come immediately-everybody's got a soul, got a heart. People are so worried about us contaminating their spaces, and they kick us out of programs because we'll have a heart and provide shelter for some of our friends when no one else is willing to take us in."

Despite the rotten hand that's been dealt to them, the youths of HELLO are emotionally sensitive, displaying a mix of street smarts and vulnerability. Rather than focusing exclusively on their own problems, many are concerned about the well-being of their fellow citizens, and the state of our nation as a whole. And instead of dwelling on personal pain, discussion at HELLO is focused on voting, advocacy walks, demonstrating, and meeting with other members of their unmoored community.

Two attending this night are currently enrolled in college. Holcomb said the state budget scheduled to take effect July 1 will hinder college plans of 14 HELLO youths. The Illinois Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants are being cut $242 million -- 75 percent -- for 145,000 low-income students.

One has plans for a master's degree after she finishes at Columbia College. Several are pursuing their GEDs, and the majority of the rest have some sort of continued education in their goals for the future. Some youths just want to learn a trade like carpentry or auto mechanics, while others want to be forensic scientists, firemen, caseworkers for the LGBT community, graphic designers, paralegals, chefs, or dancers.

Though HELLO provides sanctuary and community, it's only a launching pad for the biggest challenge: being heard. Modern news is delivered with style, flash, and beauty-a stark contrast to youth homelessness, one of the most unpalatable issues in any community. And so the problem remains. What will really make the difference is a change in attitude.

One youth declared, "People always say that 'young people are the future,' but why can't they help us out when we and the programs we utilize are suffering?" Another youth said, "Cops see us every day, but people don't. Invisible nothing. People make me sick, because they say they want to help, but they don't help. People need to reach out to us and help us, call 311 or something. Be one of us for a day."

Another youth suggested that "all of the public officials should take a cut out of their pay rather than tax the people who already have two jobs to make ends meet. If they don't like it, I'd be happy to take their spot and be a congressman."


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