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After Shelter Fire, Homeless Youth In Chicago Face Dwindling Options

When a January fire forced the closure of the Ujima Village Shelter in Englewood, many staff expected the emergency overnight facility for young adults to reopen by May.

But the necessary repairs were greater than expected, staff said, and six months later the construction has not been completed. But some Ujima employees have taken extraordinary steps to maintain contact with the vulnerable young people who once stayed there.

Every night since the fire — which a Chicago Fire Department spokesman said was likely accidental — Ujima supervisors Rochelle Williams and Anne Holcomb have stationed themselves outdoors on the South Side with a tray of packed lunches. Each bag contains a ham sandwich, a Rice Krispies Treat and potato chips. They’re prepared by a caterer who used to provide food to the shelter, and Williams said she gives at least two bags to each youth who comes by.

Rochelle Williams, a shift supervisor at Ujima, picks up a catered tray of packed lunches that she hands out to young adults who used to stay at Ujima. She said she usually gives two bags to each client. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

“Some days we might have seven to 10 kids out here, some days might not have any,” Williams said. “But we’re down here everyday just so that we can let them know that if they need something, as much as we can, we can still help them.”

Two young adults who have become regulars are a 22-year-old man who asked to be called “Montana,” and his 19-year-old girlfriend, who introduced herself as “T-Baby.” 

“We’ve been sleeping in Englewood, and sleeping in abandoned buildings and back porches and stuff,” Montana said. 

T-Baby added that they’ve also gotten through some cold winter nights by riding the L.

The couple said they meet up with Williams and Holcomb nearly every night in the parking lot where they now hand out the bags.

“With the food they give, they [are] still helping us out,” T-Baby said.

Williams and Holcomb said they chose to station themselves at a commercial parking lot between a youth shelter where some of the Ujima clients now stay, and a CTA Red Line station that other youth can easily access.

Williams said that simply getting the word out about their outreach and location has been difficult with such a transient and unstable population.

“You know, you and I might have a [phone] number for four or five or ten years,” Williams said. “They go through phone numbers rather rapidly ... It’s pretty much a word of mouth-type situation.”

Fewer beds for youths

Ujima, which had 24 beds, was Chicago’s second-largest emergency overnight shelter to accommodate young adults below the age of 25.

According to All Chicago, an alliance of service providers and advocacy groups that works to coordinate homeless services, there are 119 emergency shelter beds in facilities that specifically serve young adults. However, more than a third of those are currently not available. In addition to Ujima’s closing, The Night Ministry in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood suspended its overnight shelter operations for youth in June because it needed time to hire and train additional staff.

Sol Flores, executive director of La Casa Norte, a youth homeless services provider, said more beds are needed.

La Casa Norte offers the largest number of emergency overnight beds in Chicago for young adults. But after Ujima closed, the organization found itself unable to handle the increased number of young people showing up for a place to sleep, Flores said. On average, it turned away three to seven people each week, when previously it would only occasionally have to turn people away, she said.

Flores noted that while these young people may be old enough to stay in any adult homeless shelter, over the past 15 years, Chicago has begun to provide services more tailored to younger adults. 

She said that this grew out of a better understanding that young people’s brains are still developing in their early twenties, and that many of these youths have been deeply affected by neglect and abuse.

“These are young people who are entering the world, and yes, while legally at 18 you’re adult, they don’t always have the tools, the resources, they haven’t had the modeling or the real first chances to be, often times, their best selves,” Flores said.

Holcomb, the supervisor of support services at Unity Parenting and Counseling, the social service agency that runs Ujima, said this is why it’s been critical to keep connected with the people who used to stay at the shelter. 

Holcomb said Ujima staff often encouraged clients to take the next step toward stability, whether that was signing up for food aid or mental health services. That kind of work has been much more difficult since Ujima’s client population dispersed after the fire.

shows In this photo from 2014, a then Ujima resident makes a poster on a table that Holcomb said melted in the fire. (Courtesy of Anne Holcomb)

Williams and Holcomb said when they do connect with their clients, many of the young people ask how soon the shelter will reopen. They said they still have no idea.

“We’ve formed some strange bond with them, and they’ve formed a bond with us,” Williams said. “So the longer that we’re closed, the further away they are from us. We are hopeful that wherever they are, they’re OK. And when we do get back open, if they need to come back, they know they can and that they’re welcome to come back.”

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @oyousef.

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