Campaign looks to raise funds to save program for homeless young women
January 14, 2013 7:30AM
Girls in 360 Youth Services transitional housing program including Arielle, center, and Cheyenne, left, laugh with Case Manager Rachel Page during a lifeskills group at their home in Lisle on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. The program lost it's state funding and has started "Dollars for Daughters," to raise $125,00 to keep the program running. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 19, 2013 12:31PM
The streets can be mean. It’s no place for a young girl to sleep.
Julia, who just turned 20, knows that. Less than two years ago, she was living with her adoptive parents and three older brothers in a comfortable home in Elgin. Her teenage years had been rocky, clouded by a deep depression that led Julia to injure herself and develop eating disorders. Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, she thinks the history of drug abuse in her biological parents triggered her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
The parents who raised her thought tough love was the remedy.
“I was in and out of hospitals,” Julia said. “My parents, I guess, thought it would be a sink-or-swim thing: ‘We’re going to put you out on the street.’”
She swam, but it was often against a powerful current. For months Julia was in and out of homeless shelters, punctuating those stays with stints sleeping on friends’ couches. Her sense of hope — often a crucial lifeline for people with serious depression — was sinking.
She’d heard of a program based in Naperville that gives homeless young women a chance to regain their footing, with apartments and job support and guidance to get them back in school. She even had a chance to sign up at one point, not long after she was put out on the street.
“I thought everything was going to be OK, so I didn’t take it,” she said.
It wasn’t OK. Hope continued to slip away.
When another opportunity came her way last March, she grabbed it.
“I have hope now,” said Julia, who shares a modest two-bedroom apartment in Lisle with two other young women who also have known life on the street.
All of those who have been sheltered by 360 Youth Services have stories to tell about being homeless. Julia, who works two jobs and just started attending College of DuPage with help from a Pell grant, is one of 60 young women whose lives have been turned around by the agency’s transitional housing program since it began in 2006.
She and six others now relying on that assistance could soon be back out in the community, bunking at emergency shelters if there’s room available, sleeping on couches or in cars if there isn’t.
Grant funds that enable the agency to provide apartments, groceries and job and education support for the formerly homeless women, ages 18 to 22 — part of the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in DuPage County — have been withdrawn. Operators of the transitional housing program learned recently that its federal Health and Human Services support “was not renewed, and unless alternative funding can be secured, seven amazing young women may find themselves homeless again,” the agency related in a news release announcing a newly launched campaign.
Dubbed “A Dollar for Our Daughters,” the endeavor is tapping social media to build awareness and draw funds to keep the young women housed, employed and in school — the building blocks of a promising future.
For Julia, a return to homelessness would probably require her to quit school again, she said, so she could work more. It also would mean an end to the group meetings held in her building that help the residents learn how to look after themselves when they leave the program.
This isn’t the first time the transitional housing program has been in peril. In August 2011, the agency was notified that the new owners of a dozen Downers Grove apartments it was renting, six for men and six for women, were refusing to renew their leases. After a public plea went out, new housing was arranged for the residents.
According to Ron Hume, the organization’s executive director, this time the agency has cut its program budget to the bare bones, but still must raise $125,000 to keep the young women housed until October.
Nineteen-year-old Savannah is among them. She and others in the program, identified by only their first names, are featured in a newly posted video on the 360 Youth Services website.
“I know what it’s like to be homeless. I’ve been the girl who’s carried all of her belongings, hanging from every limb of my body,” she says on the short film. “Just on the street.”
Julia, who also appears in the video, understands some of the misconceptions that continue to hinder the daunting task of getting back on one’s feet.
“The few shelters that I’ve been in, the people that I’ve met, none of them ever have said, ‘I chose this life,’” she says on the film. “They’re all struggling to get out of it, but it’s a recurring cycle. No one’s going to look at you to get a job.”
Dawn Portner, events and marketing coordinator at 360, said she and her coworkers were taken aback by the responses they heard when they told their young clients that the program’s support had been pulled.
“They weren’t concerned for themselves,” she said. “They were worried about the next ones who would come along.”
Julia, no stranger to the problem, worries.
“There’s more and more homeless people every day,” she says. “And less and less programs. And losing this one is not going to help the situation.”
Now attending college, Savannah laments the damage that could be caused by the potentially drastic cut in financial support. She doesn’t know what would have happened if she had not found 360.
“I would not be in a safe place. I know that,” she says. “And I would not be reaching the goals that I am striving for now.”
The program’s clients are working hard to make life better for themselves.
“I’m actually living my life, instead of just trying to live day by day,” 20-year-old Arielle says in the film. “They give you the support that you need. There’s a lot of resources available to you by being in this program. You’re able to go to college.”
Nicki Anderson, a 360 Youth Services board member and Sun columnist, also has a spot in the new video that emphasizes the good the housing program has done.
“These girls were homeless, and now they’re thriving,” Anderson says. “This is one of only three programs in the state of Illinois that give girls the opportunity to realize their dreams, and make them happen.”
For more information about the campaign and the transitional program, go to www.360youthservices.org.