Privatization factors into youth homelessness

By The Columbia Chronicle

As the city looks to decrease spending, programs that combat teen homelessness have undergone a reduction in staffing and funding.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Aug. 23 that privatizing transportation services for the homeless would save the city $1.7 million, which would affect 17,000 at-risk youths on the streets or living with other families. This came after the Illinois House of Representatives voted to decrease the budget for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development by 5 percent.

“In every part of city government, we are focused on delivering better services at the most competitive price for taxpayers,” Emanuel said in a written statement. “We are partnering with Catholic Charities [of the Archdiocese] to bring improved and expanded mobile outreach services to homeless families in need at half the cost, and using the savings to dramatically increase the number of homeless youth we serve at no extra cost.”

After midyear budget cuts from the state, Emanuel laid off 24 city employees who oversaw the night shift that picked up homeless residents in shuttle buses and transported them to shelters. But after pressure from several aldermen, Emanuel set aside the $200,000 needed to maintain the two to three teams that worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift.  Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese, which has promised to provide well-being check ups and food delivery for the homeless, will carry out another privatization process.

Following the aftermath of the budget cuts, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has fought to bring back funding that would adequately sustain youth shelters around Chicago, said CCH Associate Policy Director Eithne McMenamin.

“We prevent cuts from the Youth Homelessness service budget in the Illinois House, and our taskforce [is coming] up with a plan for expanding shelter for homeless youth, as well as changing shelter rules to allow minors to stay with them,” McMenamin said.

Privatization has not affected The Night Ministry, a local group that provides shelter and outreach services to homeless youth, according to Jessica Howe, coordinator for public and media relations for the organization.  Howe noted that the ministry received 32 percent of its funding from the government in 2011.

Another organization not affected by prioritization is the National Runaway Switchboard, which works as an outreach group for locating runaway teens and provides them with adequate services based on each caller’s need.  But according to Maureen Blaha, executive director, sustaining a 24-hour call center staff can be stressful.

“We have not had to restructure any of our staff members, but we rely heavily on our volunteers,” Blaha said. “They are what make the operation tick. Running on our $2 million budget really speaks to the type of workers we attract.”

However, many Chicago shelters are realizing that finding places for nearly 15,000 homeless youths is a seemingly impossible task, according to Jennifer Ritter, executive director of the Lakeview Action Coalition, which seeks to place homeless youths in shelters across the city.

Ritter explained there are only 212 state shelter beds designated for homeless youths in Chicago, meaning that there is limited space for these at-risk youths. According to her, the LAC aims to provide them with housing options elsewhere.

If minors were allowed into adult shelters problems may arise, according to Blaha.  While in the shelter, minors may become victims to sexual assault or physical abuse.

“When youths are looking for beds [at the shelters], it is often hard for them to find a place to stay because as minors, they cannot give consent to stay in adult shelters,” Blaha said. “Being in an adult shelter would be particularly hazardous to these young people.”