LAKEVIEW — About a year ago, 24-year-old Terry Dudley said he began to experience permanent homelessness after escaping a violent relationship.
The South Side native, who also experienced homelessness on and off during his late teen years, has a story that is familiar to many of the youth who face homelessness over the course of a year in Illinois — about 55,000 public school students alone during the 2016-17 school year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
But his path out of homeless has been a successful one, thanks to Center on Halsted's 1½-year-old Youth Housing Initiative.
Dudley occupies one of 10 apartments in Edgewater that are offered up to young adults experiencing homelessness. One year after entering the program, he now has a job and big plans for the future.
“In five years, I see myself as a manager or director of a youth space or part of a youth program where I’m helping young people as far as job readiness and housing stability,” he said. “I definitely saw my career path without Center on Halsted, but it’s been a huge help just with stability and getting my career off the ground.”
Center on Halsted’s Youth Housing Initiative launched in April 2016 and the building is currently full and has a wait list. The program offers apartments to homeless young adults with a focus on helping LGBTQ people and their allies, as well as specialized services with the goal of helping each individual reach a stable and independent living situation.
Dr. Hector Torres, chief program officer for Center on Halsted, said many LGBTQ youth and young adults come from families that are rigid in their understanding of sexuality or may not have been exposed to LGBTQ individuals.
“This may lead to parents, when they find out about someone being LGBTQ, having a difficult time keeping them in their home," Torres said.
A feasibility study conducted by Center on Halsted in 2014 showed that there are three types of housing resources for homeless youths in the country: homeless shelters that offer emergency overnight housing, transitional housing that generally provides housing and services for up to two years and transitional age youth housing that provides housing and services without a specific deadline for departure.
That last model is what Center on Halsted’s housing initiative is based on.
“It allows us to bring in young people to be housed in an apartment, not for an 18-month period like most models are, but for a year, two years, three years, four years, five years if need be,” said Modesto Tico Valle, Center on Halsted's CEO. “And it allows us to have services around education, employment, case management, therapy, skill building, community work, everything you can imagine under the sky.”
Center on Halsted’s program is currently being funded by private donations, which allows more flexibility in what the program is able to offer, Valle said.
Rather than just providing a place for someone to live who would otherwise experience homelessness, this initiative creates a community, increasing the chances that participants in the program will find and maintain stability.
“Community is the center of the model,” Torres said. “The idea is that isolation is one of the greatest risks, and we are not the only resource. We may coordinate, we may follow up with them closely, but their resources are our partner agencies, our specialized staff, and also their own peers become resources for them.”
In fact, young people do not have to be housed by Center on Halsted in order to benefit from these resources. The center's youth program serves around 400 young people a year, about 60 percent of whom are experiencing homelessness or unstable housing situations.
Valle said the housing initiative as it appears now is a beta test, and Center on Halsted plans to add a community house as a step prior to independent living in apartments.
In the long run, the plan is to bring youth housing and resources to Woodlawn on Chicago's South Side, a neighborhood Valle said is in desperate need of a program like this.
“One of the ultimate objectives of this plan is to be on the South Side of Chicago,” Valle said. “What we’re doing currently there is building relationships with providers who not only do youth work, but provide all sorts of social service support so that we can begin to gain credibility, respect and knowledge and not go into duplicate services, but be of value and support the community.”
Even in its beta stage, the Youth Housing Initiative changed Terry Dudley’s life in a way that may not have been possible using only more traditional methods of tackling homelessness.
“I can only speak from my own experience, but the housing program put me in a neighborhood environment that I was comfortable in,” Dudley said. “I’ve always lived on the South Side of Chicago, but growing up black and being gay and someone who is also effeminate, it’s harder to navigate day-to-day life in different neighborhoods on the South Side."
The housing program opened up his eyes to different community-based organizations, like gardening clubs, book clubs, "things I didn’t know existed that were welcoming to an LGBTQ person like myself," Dudley said.
Valle said an initiative like this has been discussed since 1990 when the Horizons Youth Program officially launched. Succeeding in any facet of life is dependent on stable housing, he said.
“This program is an essential piece of our mission,” Valle said. “We need all of our LGBTQ individuals to reach a place where they can thrive and be empowered.”