When 17-year-old Devontay Talbert first walked into Phoenix Hall, which is housed in a large greystone in North Lawndale on Chicago’s Southwest Side, he couldn’t believe it.
“I was mind blown … this house is beautiful,” said Devontay, a senior at DRW College Prep, a Chicago charter school.
The home has shiny hardwood floors, new kitchen appliances, and separate bedrooms for eight students — just like a regular home. It also has a patio with a garden, a spacious computer room with laptops for each student.
This cozy house was remodeled two years ago to create a home for teens experiencing homelessness or housing instability. Devontay, the youngest of six, arrived in February. Before moving in, his family was facing a difficult situation.
“I told myself, I need to get away from them right now because all that negative energy, I can’t deal with,” he said.
Devontay has experienced housing instability on and off throughout his life and Phoenix Hall is unlike any other place he’s been. “In other shelters they just put you in your own space,” he said. “They don’t try to connect with you, every time you walk by, you know they don’t make eye contact with you. Here is a different story.”
Despite that, Phoenix Hall is having trouble filling its rooms. Chicago Public Schools has thousands of homeless students but a variety of factors, including stigma and the difficulty getting parents to buy in, appears to be keeping students away.
Looking for teens
The vacant building that now houses Phoenix Hall was renovated with the help of the West Loop-based Old St. Patrick Catholic Church, which raised just over a $1 million in seed money through its nonprofit. That money was used to buy and rehab the building and fund the program for the first 18 months.
Initially, Phoenix Hall was to serve students at nearby North Lawndale College Prep who needed a stable home while going to school. But it later expanded its reach and now welcomes high school students attending other public schools across the city. Students can stay for as long as their families need to get their housing situation stabilized. Their stay could be temporary, or it could last a school year.
But this spacious eight bedroom home currently has only five residents, despite a well-documented need for housing for homeless teens. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated that nearly 21,000 kids were homeless in 2017. Chicago Public Schools served more than 16,000 homeless students last school year, according to recent numbers released by the coalition. And across the city, there is a huge need for beds at family shelters.
“Why aren’t we full?” asked Allison McCann-Stevenson, assistant director of long-term residential services at The Night Ministry, which runs Phoenix House and other housing programs in the city. “Why isn’t there a list when there is such a huge need?”
McCann-Stevenson knows the answer to some of her own questions.
One reason is straight forward — the first cohort of students at the home graduated from high school last spring and some moved on to college.
“We were able to help one student get to Western Illinois University,” McCain-Stevenson said. “So staff from the program took her and her mom, who was currently not in a position to see her daughter off to school.”
She said they’ve done the same for other teens because their focus is college and career.
Soon after the teens left, McCann-Stevenson and her team began the search for more teens. But getting parents to agree is a big challenge. Phoenix Hall isn’t a family shelter and students need their consent from their parents before moving in unless they are 18 years old or older.
And some families don’t see the program as help. They see it “almost as a system that was judging their ability to care for their child,” McCann-Stevenson said.
“They don’t view themselves as homeless”
To help change that, McCann-Stevenson refers to Phoenix Hall as a housing alternative for students having trouble focusing at school because of challenges at home.
At Phoenix Hall, Devontay and his four other roommates get support from staff, including a case manager. Students there are offered structure and stability, but they also have to follow house rules and a curfew. They get a weekly allowance, but they also have to do chores.
Even with all of that, there are other barriers to identifying new students. “It is harder because of the stigma,” McCann-Stevenson said. “They don’t view themselves as homeless,” she said, especially if teens are staying with family and friends temporarily.
In the past, school counselors or social workers have played a big role identifying and talking to families about their options. But when schools don’t have those resources, it’s hard to get referrals, McCann-Stevenson said.
This experience is also hard on teens who may not want to leave their families or who are not used to having tons of support, said Morgan Saunders, a program specialist with The Night Ministry. She also experienced homelessness growing up.
“We know what it's like not to know where your next meal is going to be … not to own anything or the things that you do own [you] worry about if other people are going to take them,” Saunders said.
So their excitement about moving in is mixed with apprehension. Some teens have been feeling unsafe for so long that she says sometimes they think, “I don’t know how to take being given this space and I don’t know how to take being in this program.”
Phoenix Hall staff tries to be as welcoming and consistent as possible. Parents are allowed to visit, for example. Devontay’s mom came over for dinner recently and they cooked together.
By doing that, Phoenix Hall tries to reassure families this could be a safe home for their teens during tough times.
“What teenager will possibly turn down all of this?” Devontay asked “They’ll have their own bedroom, a bathroom.” At Phoenix Hall, he said, he found his own space and teens “my age to talk to.”