Providing Storage to Ease the Way for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

CHICAGO, IL –(ENEWSPF)–April 27. 2016.   Imagine trying to get to work or school or a doctor’s appointment while carrying everything that matters to you.  Now add some of Chicago’s extreme weather elements and one has a sense of what young people experiencing homelessness navigate. Left with unreliable or infrequent storage options, young people hide their belongings in alleys, dumpsters, yards, abandoned buildings, bushes, and under porches.

In the absence of stable housing, possessions necessary for employment and educational opportunities—such as state identification, employee uniforms, and school books—are in constant danger of being lost, stolen, or damaged. This loss comes with long-term enduring consequences related to health, well-being, and community connection.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates that in 2014 a staggering 12,000 Chicago youth between the ages of 14 and 21 were homeless and lived on their own without support from a guardian or family member. Consider that only 374 youth shelter beds exist for young people— and only 40 secure storage lockers were available in the entire city, until now.

Thanks to a group of innovative Chicago foundations, however, new storage sites will now be available for young people to store clothing, supplies, family keepsakes, mail, and legal documents. “Youth without a stable place to live often do not have a safe place to store their belongings, which leaves them vulnerable to loss or theft,” said Debbie Reznick, Senior Program Officer with Polk Bros Foundation. “Storage assists young people practically and can also be used as an opportunity to engage youth not currently accessing services.”

Founded by the Pierce Family Foundation, Knight Family Foundation, Polk Bros Foundation and Windy City Times, the newly launched Chicago Youth Storage Initiative will install 250 super-size lockers by the end of 2017, with the first 100 storage installations at Ujima Village (Englewood), which received 65 lockers plus related support; Teen Living Program’s Drop In Center (Washington Park); El Rescate (Humboldt Park); and Mercy Home for Boys and Girls (West Loop). The Initiative is being housed at the Crossroads Fund, a social justice fund which is serving as the fiscal manager while providing technical and administrative support.

“This is an unusual collaboration spearheaded by a group of foundations that paid attention to what young people said they needed, and then decided to do something about it,” said Marianne Philbin, Executive Director of the Pierce Family Foundation, which has been leading the charge. “This initiative is the first coordinated, citywide effort in the U.S. designed to provide physical and virtual storage options to improve the lives of young people experiencing homelessness.”

The storage issue was a frequent topic of discussion at the Windy City Times’ Chicago Summit on LGBT Youth Homelessness in 2014. Soon thereafter, the Pierce Family Foundation and Polk Bros Foundation commissioned a study of storage realities and options, and the initiative began to take shape from there. Community leaders committed to making storage available began meeting to create a plan, raise money, and hire a staff person. “The idea of storage is creative and innovative. We felt it was critical to act quickly and flexibly, so that young people seeking shelter or support in this city get this need met right now,” said Becky Knight, president of the Knight Family Foundation. “Knowing their belongings are in a safe place is a respite from some of the anxiety and uncertainty in a young person’s experience of homelessness—especially in winter.”

“A very real intersection exists between storage access and health, well-being, and safety,” said Brooks. “The stress this adds to the traumas of homelessness is enormous—and unnecessary. For example, young people told us that it was difficult to participate in youth center activities, talk to counselors or access healthcare due to the chronic stress and hypervigilance associated with protecting one’s belongings.” Brooks added, “Thanks to this group of creative funding partners, secure storage units will soon be available at overnight youth shelters, drop-in centers, and schools. We are also piloting virtual or cloud-based storage for legal documents, mail, and family photos.”

Access to safe and secure storage has both short- and long-term impacts. The stigma of carrying around bags and suitcases is profound—and young people are keenly aware of the discrimination that individuals experiencing homelessness face. “For many young people, storage access means that they are more likely to attend job interviews and enroll in school. Young people also described the harms and targeting they experienced moving through neighborhoods or on public transportation with suitcases and bags,” said Lara Brooks. In these ways, storage access promotes mobility and may reduce violence and other harms.

Serving on the leadership team are Marianne Philbin (Pierce Family Foundation), Heather Parish (Pierce Family Foundation), Becky Knight (Knight Family Foundation), Debbie Reznick (Polk Bros Foundation), Jeanne Kracher (Crossroads Fund), Tracy Baim (Windy City Times), Julie Mineman (Owens Foundation), Michael Mock (Community Member), and Lara Brooks (Chicago Youth Storage Initiative).

Other foundations supporting the program include the Alphawood Foundation, the Alvin Baum Foundation, and the Owens Foundation. In its second year of operation, CYSI plans to expand storage access to high school and college sites and explore the feasibility of creating stand-alone storage and laundry centers, in addition to installations at existing drop-in and shelter sites.

Additional donations will support the continued expansion of this effort. Crossroads Fund accepts donations on behalf of the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative.

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