Voices Emerge As Homeless Youth Find Opportunities

Homeless and formerly homeless Chicago youth join together for a performance hour to share their experiences with their community.

CHICAGO -- Spectators, community members and activists from four local organizations gathered on Monday January 28, 2008 for a night of art, performance and expression in a production entitled "It Starts with You," which was produced by homeless and formerly homeless youth.

Lakeview's Center on Halsted, at 3656 N. Halsted, hosted the homeless youth art and talent show with co-organizers The Night Ministry, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) and the Broadway Youth Center. The segments of "It Starts with You" were composed by active members of a program called Homeless Experts Living Life's Obstacles (HELLO). HELLO is co-sponsored by The Night Ministry and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Original poems expressed stories of the artists' days and nights spent on the city streets. Paintings and portraits told stories of their emotions, and other performances discussed internal struggles that can't often be explained in the passing exchanges during which many Chicagoans encounter the young performers. Scenes of the evening depicted how some of the performers became homeless, highlighting issues as broad as sexual orientation and mental health, while the event as a whole presented a step in the performers' attempts to find permanent homes, jobs and lifestyles.

An estimated 150 audience members attended the show, which included poetry, a tribal drum routine, skits and spoken word performances. Adjacent hallways displayed drawings, a multimedia presentation and other original works of art constructed by HELLO group members. A television presented the evening's digital photography exhibit, which highlighted images from the streets of Chicago as seen through the camera lenses of HELLO participants.

Many of the performers strived to show they are not simply one-dimensional figures hiding in the back alleys of society without direction, goals or a plan. "I am more than a seat on this train, which is where I will sleep tonight," a performer recited from a poem written by a 21-year-old formerly homeless poet, adding, "Yes, I have a future. I will not be this way forever." From the event’s emcee- named Bogus, a formerly homeless Chicago resident who received assistance from The Night Ministry in his quest to find a permanent job and home- to the artists whose art was on display, the evening's participants embodied the production’s co-sponsors goal of providing an outlet for the youths to express themselves.

"It Starts with You" was organized to help publicize the less audible aspects of the struggles facing homeless youth in Chicago. Event organizer Nicole Sauler of The Night Ministry enjoyed working towards bringing attention to the issue at hand, as she feels it is a rarely discussed but important issue for Chicagoans to address. "We estimate that there's about 2,000 youth every night that don’t have a stable, safe place to live and there are too few beds and opportunities for them," Sauler said about Chicago homelessness, "So we really like that an event like this helps foster discussion about the issues homeless youth face and policy issues to help address these problems."

Statistics provided by other co-sponsors of the event supported the theory that while there are a number of programs in Chicagoland to help end the occurrence of youth homelessness, there are still visible gaps in the funding and assistance the groups may provide. Information presented by event co-sponsor the CCH presented even more dramatic numbers than the estimate given by The Night Ministry about homeless youth. Data provided by the CCH suggest that around 3,000 homeless youth, or 52 percent of all youth who approached Chicagoland homeless assistance programs in 2007, were turned away due to issues such as overbooking.

Even without sufficient resources and in spite of the myriad of obstacles facing homeless youth in Chicago who are trying to better their lives, the event co-sponsors continue to strive to assist homeless youth and they do so with a number of dedicated volunteers, a wide array of programs and events like "It Starts with You."

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