‘The Homestretch’ sheds light on hidden homeless population

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

Balancing school with having to figure out a place to sleep at night can be tough in Chicago, and a new documentary, “The Homestretch,” shows just how hard that has been for some students.

“The Homestretch” follows three homeless Chicago teenagers as they endure homelessness and pursue a better life. Originally released in Chicago theaters in April, the documentary has received multiple distribution deals that will make it available for download Nov. 21.

Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, co-directors and producers of the documentary, began working on the project in 2009. Kelly said she was working with students in the Chicago Public Schools Shakespeare Theater program when she learned that one of the students became homeless after coming out to his parents as gay. 

“We started talking to school administrators and service providers and started to understand that this was an enormous crisis that nobody was talking about,” de Mare said. “The public schools [in Chicago] were really dealing with this in a way that I don’t think the public was aware of.”

More than 12,000 youths in the greater Chicago area are homeless, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

However, CPS’s Office of Students in Temporary Living Situations identified 22,144 homeless students in the 2013–2014 school year. This is an 18.6 percent increase from the CPS homeless enrollment of 18,669 in the 2012–2013 school year.

In addition to following three homeless youths, de Mare and Kelly also talked to Teen Living Programs and The Night Ministry, organizations that work with homeless youths in Chicago.

“We spent a lot of time [within the organizations] before we brought the cameras in,” de Mare said. “We met with everyone before we began to film, so there was a level of trust when the cameras came in.”

The majority of the homeless youths in the community face negative stereotypes, highlighting why the issue needs to be brought to the community’s attention, de Mare said.

“It’s a problem in terms of young people stepping out and self-identifying as homeless,” de Mare said. “They don’t want to be stigmatized, so it’s important that we break down this barrier.”

Teen Living Programs is a nonprofit that offers support and resources as a prevention strategy for homeless youth to ensure that they do not remain homeless throughout their adult lives. It offers three different housing programs. 

One is a basic youth shelter that has four spaces for young people ages 14–17. The second housing phase—Belfort House—provides for 18–24-year-olds. The third housing branch subsidizes 10 apartments for two years, hoping that when the young resident’s two years are complete, he or she will be able to renew the lease.

“The agency literally has a vision that every young person deserves a safe home,” said Jeri Linas, executive director at Teen Living. “Our mission is to provide the resources for a young person that helps us fulfill that mission that the young people are going to be living in a stable environment.”

Linas said the homeless youth is a growing population in Chicago, but it is an issue that struggles to increase awareness.

 “It’s important to bring visibility to the invisible and then to challenge ourselves as communities and think about what we can do to make a difference,” Linas said.

Anthony and Kasey, two of the teens chronicled in “The Homestretch,” came from Teen Living’s Belfort House. Roque, the third teen shown in the film, was found through Kelly’s work with the CPS Shakespeare program.

The second organization highlighted in “The Homestretch” is The Night Ministry, which provides health care and other services to homeless youth. The Night Ministry was founded in 1976 and was originally started with the intent to build relations with people who did not have a place to stay at night.

Tedd Peso, government relations manager for The Night Ministry, said many of the youths that come through the organization are enrolled in school and that some schools assist homeless students. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance  Improvements  Act is a  federal law that assists this population, Peso said.

“Through McKinney-Vento legislation, young homeless students qualify for a variety of benefits that are available to them,” Peso said. “Some of those things include free bus fare, free uniforms [if applicable], just a variety of supportive services to keep them enrolled in school.”

Linas said CPS has homeless liaisons on staff to aid the identified homeless students with any benefits they may need to be successful. The downside of the program is that it is not a paid position, Linas said.

Peso said it is imperative to educate people about youth homelessness because the numbers of homeless youth in the population are continuously increasing.

“It’s important [to educate people on this population],” Peso said. “We know, without providing  adequate supportive services  for  this population, that the homeless youth we see today are going to become the homeless adults we see tomorrow.”

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