Chicago’s homeless LGBT youth need help finding shelter

By Tanni Deb

Ahniyha Johnson, 23, was homeless for three years because her family did not accept her for being transgender. Her experience inspired her to attend college to become a social worker. (Tanni Deb/Medill)
Ahniyha Johnson, 23, was homeless for three years because her family did not accept her being transgender. Her experience inspired her to attend college to become a social worker.

When Zanariah Phillips, 26, revealed to her family that she was transgender, she was beaten, ostracized and ridiculed to the point where she could not handle living at home anymore. The family of a friend took her in at the age of 14, but she moved out three years later.

“They made me feel wanted and welcome but for some reason I didn’t feel welcome,” she remembers. “I felt like it was a pity party.”

Phillips spent some nights at shelters and other times, she slept in the locker room at the Center on Halsted, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center. When she was 21, she found a job and was able to save enough money to rent an apartment.

Like Phillips, there are many LGBT youth in Illinois who struggle to find housing.

An estimated 25,000 youths in the state experience homelessness within a year, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Illinois Department of Human Services. Fifteen thousand of those live in Chicago, according to the Night Ministry, a nonprofit organization serving people who struggle with homelessness and poverty. The National LGBTQ Task Force, an advocacy group for the gay community, estimates that about 40 percent of all homeless youth are gay.

Ahniyha Johnson is transgender and that became a contentious issue with several of her extended relatives. “I knew my mother loved me, but I often felt really unsafe in that space [because of] how my other family members were treating me,” she said.

When she left home at 19, she slept over at friends’ places or spent the nights at the Crib, a homeless youth shelter in Chicago’s LakeView Lutheran Church. A year and a half ago, the 23-year-old moved back into her mother’s home. She currently lives there with just her mom.

Johnson and Phillips joined a panel at the Unitarian Church of Evanston last week to address possible solutions to the problem of LGBT youth homelessness.

Family conflicts are one of the major causes of youth homelessness, said Tracy Baim, one of the panelists and the publisher of Windy City Times. She explained that adolescents “fall through the cracks and keep falling further” when they have a lack of consistent adult relationships.

LGBT youth need a supportive figure in their lives and often times may not find support in systems such as schools, churches, social services and medical facilities, said Aidan McCormack, another panelist and the community and congregational relations coordinator at the Night Ministry.

“Children are being harmed and they are having trouble navigating systems that were set up to help them. But because of the complications of …race, sexuality, education, gender, all of those things can really act as ways that the systems themselves fail,” he explained.

Panelists agreed that society at large must get involved in various projects to help homeless LGBT youth.

One of the projects that Windy City Times has launched is the 750 Club Apartment Adoption Project, which will raise funds to rent apartments in Chicago for young adults who are attending school or working. Every $750 raised will allow one youth to live in an apartment for one month.

Another project panelists encouraged people to get involved in is the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative. Because many homeless youth do not have a place to store their belongings, they are burdened with carrying their possessions everywhere they go. This sometimes results in items getting lost or stolen. This project aims to build and purchase storage space for homeless youths.

Laundry for Youth Project is another program intended to help. The project has two specific goals: to get laundry equipment installed in shelters and to encourage laundry facilities near homeless shelters to accept vouchers that can be reimbursed for cleaning at discounted rates. The overall goal of the project is to help homeless youth have clean clothes.

Johnson’s experience of being homeless has inspired her to attend college to become a social worker

“I was homeless. I’ve been there. I understand [gay youth] and I want to help [them],” she said.