Homeless youth get to speak out

By Kelly Rix

On a chilly Monday night, about 200 people packed into the Second Unitarian Church, 656 W. Barry St., to give Chicago’s homeless youth a chance to be seen and heard.

Now in its fourth year, “Change Please” is an annual art and talent show that features artwork, poetry, music and spoken-word performances by a group of homeless and formerly homeless young people who are members of H.E.L.L.O.-Homeless Experts Living Life’s Obstacles-a youth activism group, co-sponsored by The Night Ministry and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Wendy Mathewson, a volunteer for The Night Ministry, said the art show event, which took place on Nov. 17, was about giving homeless and formerly homeless youth a chance to raise their voices and tell their stories in an atmosphere of dignity and respect where they would be genuinely heard.

“The theme of this show is ‘Change Please,’ which is a double entendre, because people stereotype the homeless as just wanting money,” Mathewson said. “But what these homeless youth are saying is, ‘We want change. We want change in the structures that dominate our society, and we want change that gives dignity to all people, especially the homeless.'”

There are more than 24,000 unaccompanied homeless youths statewide and about 8,000 in Chicago, according to a 2005 University of Illinois-Chicago study. With the recent rise in foreclosures and the sluggish economy, this number is likely to climb.

Homeless youth face many additional challenges in getting services and finding beds in shelters. Often, they are also the victims of abuse. Many of these youths are left with nowhere to live after the death of a parent occurs, for example, or if they are escaping abuse or are kicked out by their parents.

Shadow Fox, 17, who has been living on the streets since his parents died, performed in a drum troupe during the event and had paintings featured in the art show. His graffiti-inspired paintings expressed the challenges that homeless youth have to overcome.

Fox said he has become a father figure to the other homeless kids out on the streets, and he tries to protect them. His girlfriend, Nicole “Raven” Koch, also 17, participated in the drum troupe.

“By drumming and everything, we are trying to show the world that we have talent,” Fox said.

Koch said she refuses to go to shelters, as does Fox.He said there are usually not enough beds in shelters and that they can be dodgy. They prefer to squat in abandoned buildings or find places to stay outside and ride the CTA trains to keep warm.

“Some shelters can be worse than the streets,” Fox said. “Because they’ll try to kill you in there.”

Ray Steinmetz, a volunteer at the Broadway Youth Center, 4025 N. Sheridan Road, came to help out with the event. He said a lot of shelters can also be dangerous for young people, since older homeless people can be hostile toward younger ones who are viewed as being runaways that voluntarily gave up a home.

Another featured artist of the night, Antwon “Rabbit” Smith, 24, said he was kicked out of his mother’s house when he was in high school after she found out he was gay. Though no longer homeless, he stays involved with programs like those at The Night Ministry because it makes him feel good to express himself artistically.

Smith said he thinks most people have a lot of misconceptions about homeless kids-that they are all runaways, gang bangers or drug addicts-and he likes to share his story and his artwork, which is intended to help debunk stereotypes about homelessness and to help people better understand the reality of the situation.

“Some people kick their kids out because of their sexuality,” Smith said. “Or sometimes the parents get put out themselves and then their kids have nowhere to go.”

Mathewson, 34, who is also a Presbyterian minister working in campus ministry, said she has done a lot of advocacy work in the past, which is typically defined as “speaking on behalf of the voiceless.” But that’s not the case with this program, she said.

“What I love about The Night Ministry’s program is I’m just supporting the youth as they advocate on their own behalf,” Mathewson said. “It’s empowering for them to raise their own voices about their own needs and how the laws and policies of the city of Chicago and DCFS and all that affect them.”

Jermaine Perry, a homeless 18-year-old, was among the attendees admiring the artwork. He writes music, poetry and draws, and said he would like to be one of the artists in the show next year-but as a formerly-homeless youth.

“[Being homeless,] you kind of feel like you are in the bottom of the barrel,” Perry said. “So it’s kind of enlightening to see that some of us are still surviving and going strong despite all the hardships and struggles we’ve faced.”

After having a fight with his aunt, who he had been living with, Perry ended up on the streets a couple months ago, he said. Since that time, he said he’s been staying wherever he can while he tries to get back on his feet.

“I stay on the lakefront some nights, squatting on CTA trains other days,” Perry said. “On a couple of occasions I’ve just fallen asleep outside, right where I was.”

But Perry remains optimistic. He said he had an interview coming up at the Teen Living Program and was hoping that would turn out well for him. He got a job recently at a River North restaurant.

“You know, for me, just waking up every day is a blessing,” Perry said. “I’m trying to take a step in a positive direction and not be bitter about what has happened.”

Besides being able to express themselves artistically, Steinmetz said the youth involved in the “Change Please” show said they wanted the audience to come away with a different view of homeless kids.

“Homeless people are usually ignored by society,” he said. “So any chance for them to speak out is great, and that’s what this really means to these youth-to know that someone is listening to them, not just passing them on the street. Because if you do stop to give someone change, you are not really listening to them.”