Sleepless night under Chicago stars offers time to reflect on youth homelessness

On Thursday evening, snow flurries in East Garfield Park as we arrived at Covenant House, a shelter and information center for young people who were homeless.

It was a final sign to make me question the wisdom of my pledge to participate in the organization’s annual Sleep Out Chicago event to raise money for — and raise awareness about — youth homelessness.

Which made me think I could withstand even one night outside in freezing temperatures, even though homeless people do it night after night.

But a commitment is a commitment, and I was foolish enough to publish mine in a newspaper, so all I could do was hope I’d brought the right clothes to sleep under the stars on a cold Chicago night.

I certainly had no qualms about Covenant House, a national homeless service provider targeting 18- to 24-year-olds who came to Chicago in 2017 and recently opened a new facility at 2934 W. Lake.

Covenant House is home to up to 40 young people a night – with plans to expand to 60 soon – and offers them a range of support services and unconditional love to help them get their lives back on track.

More than 200 people signed up to participate in this year’s local Sleep Out. Due to space limitations, only the top 50 fundraisers were invited to set up their sleeping bag on a piece of cardboard (no tents) during the on-site event. Others slept outside in backyards and basements.

However, before anyone ventured out, we received a tutorial on youth homelessness and Covenant House’s role in tackling it.

Youth homelessness is a largely invisible problem.

Most young people who are homeless do not live under overpasses or in shelters, although hundreds are. The majority double down with friends or relatives in situations that often leave them vulnerable.

There isn’t really a good count. Covenant House Illinois estimates that on any given night, 2,000 youths are homeless in Chicago. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless brings the number closer to 14,000.

“It should just be zero,” said Jim Coleman, the Accenture director who chaired this year’s fundraising. Accenture and Cisco were the main corporate sponsors.

Bryan Samuels, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, said 65 percent of Chicago’s homeless are black. One in five report being LGBTQ, he said. Half have either come through the state’s juvenile justice or foster care systems, or both.

But statistics can’t capture the resilience of young people like Chrissy, a teenage mother who told the story of bringing her life together at Covenant House after years of homelessness that began when she was 12.

“This is the most positive thing I’ve ever been in my life,” says Chrissy, 21, who now has a job, an apartment and takes classes online.

At around 11pm we were instructed to sleep on a concrete slab in the gated courtyard of Covenant House.

It turned out that I was well prepared for the cold and could stay warm all night.

Falling asleep was another matter. I am a restless sleeper under normal circumstances with an aversion to locking up sleeping bags. Within minutes I had knotted mine.

As a result I didn’t even sleep for a minute and was thankful when many of my fellow “sleepers” called it quits at 5:30am even though my own goal had been 6am

The benefits of staying up all night included being able to see the near-total lunar eclipse as it glided across the West Side sky—and a chance to think about what it might be like to be truly homeless, which I clearly understand is a very different animal entirely.

Many of my fellow sleepers woke up and shared how they got through the night knowing they could now go home for a warm bed, a hot meal and a shower, but realized that true homelessness is no such respite.

By morning, Covenant House Illinois reported that it was approaching its $500,000 fundraising goal.

That warmed my heart, but I still needed that hot breakfast.

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