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Beds, help lacking for homeless youth

By Karoun Demirjian

Hector Castro was 13 years old when his parents kicked him out of the house.

Castro, now 20, made his way to downtown Chicago to find a way to live on his own. What he found were limited options: He could prostitute himself for money and shelter or simply sleep on the streets.

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Though he tried repeatedly to get into shelters, Castro said, he was routinely met with closed doors.

“It would take three or four months each time before I could find a bed,” Castro said. “I didn’t have money for the phone, so I had to go from place to place, but it was always the same … waiting lists.”

It’s a common problem, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which released a study Thursday that said more than half of the state’s homeless youths, those who are 14 to 24 years old and unaccompanied, are turned away from shelters because of a lack of space.

The report states that there are only enough beds to serve about 10 percent of the state’s homeless youths, who number more than 4,100 according to a 2005 study by University of Illinois at Chicago researchers. For those who need services besides housing, the success rate is not much better: Only 12 percent of homeless youths are able to get these services, the coalition found.

The directors of the study say the gaps in service often mean the difference between rehabilitating young people and letting them fall through the cracks.

Finding a place to stay has a dramatic effect on a homeless young person. Of homeless youths who emerge from transitional living programs in shelters, 87 percent move in to safe, stable permanent housing, the study found.

“Youths that have been turned away numerous times end up sleeping in cars or on friends’ floors or on the street. Meanwhile, they’re trying to get to school and trying to get to work, but struggling and losing hope because of their homelessness,” said Daria Mueller, a policy specialist for the coalition. “If they can just get into a program, they have a chance to realize their potential.”

Getting into a program is proving an increasingly difficult task. Across Chicago, which has about 36 percent of the state’s capacity for youth shelters, shelter managers say they are forced to turn away young people in need nightly for lack of space.

The Open Door Shelter in West Town, which is run by the Night Ministry, has 16 beds available for homeless youths ages 14 to 20. Director Carole Mills said the number of young people turned away has been increasing steadily, from 514 in 2004, to 605 in 2005, to 788 in 2006.

“We’re averaging almost two youths a day who we can’t serve because there’s no bed open for them,” Mills said. “It’s one of the most difficult parts of the job, knowing that kids needed a bed and we couldn’t provide them that.”

A lack of money is a major reason why the shelters aren’t able to expand to meet growing demands.
Most shelters rely on a combination of government dollars and private donations to keep their doors open, but in the last decade, annual state funding—$4 million in 1998, $4.7 million in 2007—has not kept pace with inflation, Mueller said.

But simply increasing funding for beds across the state is not a quick fix for youth homelessness, the coalition study’s directors said, pointing to to other findings that suggest long-term stability may not be dependent on access to permanent housing alone. Although 87 percent of young people emerging from transitional shelters find stable housing, only 36 percent get jobs.

Getting jobs for young homeless people is “a need that we are trying to fill and a No. 1 priority,” said David Myers, executive director of Teen Living Programs of Chicago, which provides 36 beds and other programs for youth. “Without jobs, you cannot remain independent.”

The problem may be more acute outside city limits, according to the study. Services are concentrated where homeless youths come to live, downtown Chicago, but most youths are leaving homes outside Chicago. That means displaced youths, having few resources, may have to travel great distances to get help, Mueller said.

The longer it takes to get off the street, the greater the consequences can be.

According to a recent study based on an analysis of call-center data by the Chicago-based National Runaway Switchboard, unaccompanied homeless youth are reporting being away from home for longer periods of time and engaging in more dangerous practices, such as sex and drugs, in order to survive.

“I often talk about it as a silent crisis in our society,” said Maureen Blaha, director of the National Runaway Switchboard, which reports that since 2001, the increase in calls by young people who say they have sold drugs has gone up by 150 percent. Those who say they have engaged in prostitution has gone up by 60 percent.

But there is still hope to reach even those who seem to have been failed by an insufficient system, social workers say.

For Castro, whose parents kicked him out after he revealed his homosexuality at age 13, it took seven years of intermittent attempts to finally get off the street. In those seven years, he said, he had resorted to prostitution, sometimes for money and sometimes for a place to sleep. In that time, he contracted HIV, he said.

Two weeks ago, he enrolled in a permanent housing program at Chicago House, an organization that provides services to young people infected with HIV and AIDS; he has enrolled in G.E.D. classes and, for the first time, is thinking about college.

“I spent so long going from place to place, and being told no,” he said. “It’s so nice to have a place to go home.”

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