Fewer people were happier to see the winter of 2013-14 end than Paul W. Hamann, president of the Night Ministry.
"It was, needless to say, incredibly tough on our clients and on our staff," said Hamann. "We were constantly scrambling when those vortexes would hit without warning. Our staff did a fantastic job, wanting to be really nimble and respond really quickly, but it was difficult."
The Night Ministry increased its bed capacity at The Crib, its overnight shelter in Lakeview, by 25 percent at the request of the city. Hamann added, "That meant having to get extra staff for coverage, having to make sure that youth were engaged while they were there, making sure there was enough food, and going from running an overnight shelter to a 24-hour shelter. We got to be very good at it, but it was very challenging."
About 242 youths were served at The Crib last year, according to Hamann, and he estimated the total number of bed nights was around 7,000. "We still have nights where we turn individuals away, but the need is definitely there," he said.
Of those clients, about 70 percent are LGBT. They are not asked their sexual orientation or gender identity, so the figure is largely based on staff perception.
"It impacts how we operate the program," Hamann said. "The staff sets about creating a safe environment for the youth, an environment where everybody knows that everybody is accepted."
LGBT homeless youth who utilize The Crib have the same needs as other homeless youth, he added. "They are looking for housing, educational opportunities and employment opportunities. They may have some additional health challenges that they deal with but, by and large, they're going to be receiving the same services that a straight homeless youth is receiving. It has to be done in an environment that is sensitive and that is accepting."
All homeless youth need special consideration that many agencies are not prepared to extend, Hamann said.
"Homeless youth are not just miniature adults," he said. "When we work with them, we are working with people who are adolescents, and as many of us know, it's kind of a crazy period of our lives. There is a wide range of needs that have to delivered in an age appropriate way."
Some programs, for example, assume that homeless individuals have lost a place of residence and strive to put clients into a housing situation before starting to address their needs.
"But our youth have usually never been tenants before and don't know what it's like to run a household," Hamann said. "So our response for youth has to be remarkably different from the response to adult homelessness and as a country we're just not there yet. We're still trying to put a square peg in a round hole."
One difficulty The Crib and other social-service agencies have encountered in recent years has been hostility from the neighborhoods in which they are located.
"We have been asked by the city to provide these services, but agencies are sometimes working in areas where there are not hospitable neighbors or a hospitable alderman," Hamann said. "Some of the drop-in centers have had horrific times trying to find locations. The mayor has made this a priority and now we have to make sure that this priority gets shifted down to other levels as well."
He admitted that agencies have rarely had the resources to be proactive in their relationships with their neighbors, and he is going to try to dedicate some staff time to building more cordial relations with the neighborhood. "I think in the ideal world we would have the resources and the personnel available to be continually working so they know us and know what we're doing. Often times it's a matter of educationyou have to invite them in to see what you're doing and take the mystery away from it," he said.
Hamann said the rapid gentrification of the neighborhoods poses another serious problem for impoverished Chicagoans.
"Individuals are feeling pushed out as other individuals are coming in and claiming the neighborhood as their own, when really there are others who have been living there for a much longer time," he added. "The biggest challenge is the lack of affordable housing and lack of places to put affordable housing. When you take an expensive city like Chicago, even someone who's making minimum wage cannot afford to live here anymore."
In 2012, the Night Ministry was honored in a ceremony at the White House that Hamann attended along with Carole Mills, the organization's senior director of housing services. Hamann called the ceremony "an extraordinary event. I was impressed that there were three members of Congress who showed up, and two from the Chicago area: Jan Schakowsky and Judy Biggert. To have them take time out of their day to come to the event, to help support their constituents was marvelous. But I felt what was wonderful, was that it really helped to elevate the profile of homeless youth providers and the need for homeless youth services."
The Night Ministry will host its annual fundraising gala June 3. This year they will honor Lakeview Lutheran Church, the Winston & Strawn law firm and attorney Janine Landow-Esser, Hamann said. He added that the organization is always looking to recruit more volunteers, especially individuals to serve meals, and that they're always in need of hygiene items, especially deodorant and diapers.
"We're also trying to cap off a capital campaign to get a new health outreach bus and increase health outreach on the street starting July 1," he said. "We're happy to be able to restore some of the services we had to cut back on three years ago as a result of the economic situation."
For details on Windy City Times' May 2-5 Summit on LGBT Youth Homelessness, see chicagosummit.lgbthomelessness.com/ .