Derek Chairs is 21 years old and is finally living in his own apartment. Having faced challenges such as homelessness and abuse through his life, this new change is significant for him and he was able to do this with help from Covenant House Illinois ( CHIL ).
Chairs one day dreams of being a movie star and has the goal of maintaining housing. He enjoys knitting, exercising and movies. Chairs does not drink or smoke and said his current gay role model is Youtuber Joanne the Scammer.
"The attitude it gives off is, I'm going to be me; don't let anything affect you," said Chairs about his role model's work.
Born in California, Chairs moved back and forth to Louisiana at 11. While living in Louisiana, Chairs was molested by man who was attempting to "save him from being gay." After this, his mother moved their family back to California. Living in California Chairs experienced further abuse from his mother and her boyfriend. The abuse led Chairs to to act out physically and so, he was then sent to live at a group home. Chairs shares that his mom claimed that she was putting him out because of his acting out, but then told him in private it was because he was gay.
From ages 12-17, Chairs lived in a group home and by age 18 he was living in a transitional living program. It was at the transitional living program that the staff found out that Chairs' then boyfriend was staying with him and as a result they were both put out. That is when Chairs first became homeless.
"I wanted to fight," Chairs said about what happened feeling like it had to do with his sexual orientation. "To this day, I want to fight because there was also a lot of drama going on at that same time. We weren't supposed to have guests, period, but the other roommates had them and I was the only one to get in trouble, so I wanted to fight everybody. I was the only gay person in the house, so maybe it had nothing to do with it and maybe it did."
Desperate for a place to stay, Chairs then moved to Iowa with a friend who was willing to let him stay with her. However, that was short term and he was back without a place to stay.
Chairs at that point attempted to reach out to family for help. His father deterred him, by saying all he wanted for Christmas was for his son not to be gay anymore. Chairs slept outside that Christmas.
Chairs shared that he then moved around for about six months from Texas to California, to Indiana and finally to Chicago, where another friend offered him a place to stay. However, when he moved to another person's home, he was told to hide his gayness.
At that point, Chairs went to an emergency shelter called La Casa Norte and after a few months, he was placed in another transitional living program called Belfort House. None of those places worked for Chairs, so he couch surfed and slept in emergency shelter for about two weeks.
On Oct. 26, Chairs was finally able to start living independently for the first time in his life as he picked up the keys to his very own apartment, which he will pay for with his social security benefits.
"My personality, my fragrance," Chairs said happily when asked what makes his new home feel like home. "I always wanted my own place."
CHIL offers crisis care to homeless and at-risk youth in Chicago. The organization's mission, is "to serve youth with absolute respect and unconditional love, providing vital resources and protection to all young people in need." In support of their mission, Covenant House is led by five guiding principles: Immediacy, sanctuary, value communication, structure and choice.
They serve as a center, offering services to homeless and at-risk youth ages 18-24, including meals, showers, laundry, computer access, case management and storage lockers.
CHIL caseworkers helped Chairs get placed into his own apartment since they are an Access Point for Chicago's Coordinated Entry System. Chicago's Coordinated Entry System serves as an entry point to connect people facing homelessness to housing and supports in an accessible, equitable and transparent manner.
"Covenant House has been there to support me in every way possible," said Chairs in a previous statement. "They allow me to be myself, even when I'm upset." His case manager, Nichole, he said enthusiastically, is a person of trust and comfort who he can open up to and pushes him when he wants to give up.
"Covenant House is a big support; Oh, my gosh," said Chairs.
Chairs said it was also his own existence that got him through the hard time.
"People were really doubting me and I didn't think I could come this far with my own place, make my own decisions," said Chairs. He added it is fine what people with doubts say, but he "wants to make my life better than theirs."
On Thursday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m., local celebrities, business leaders and young professionals are invited to "sleep out" at St. James Commons, 65 E. Huron St., in solidarity with Chicago's homeless youth as part of Covenant House Illinois' inaugural Sleep Out.
For more information on Covenant House Illinois, visit www.covenanthouseil.org/ .