Lockers for Homeless Youth Meet Critical Needs

More than 12,000 young Chicagoans are believed to be homeless.

While there may be several dozen organizations helping them meet basic needs like food and shelter, one service in particular has been hard to come by: storage.

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In 2015, there were only about 40 storage units at any of those homeless youth service centers. But over the last year, a program has been working to increase the amount of storage for that population, and it’s wrapping up this summer after creating hundreds of storage units.

It may seem simple: A locker teenagers and 20-somethings can use to store their stuff.

But it’s more than just stuff.

For youth experiencing homelessness, a simple locker is the code to more security.

Devin Wise, 24, was homeless for about four years – he came to La Casa Norte’s drop-in center in Logan Square for help.

“There was a lot of times I was able to work something out with somebody, and they would let me keep my stuff there until afterwards. Then I’d like, go to a job interview … and then I would go back and pick up my stuff wherever I left it at,” Wise said.

Joy Menhennett is the lead case manager at La Casa Norte’s drop-in center, where they serve about 10 to 25 young people a day, typically ages 18 to 24. She says not having a place to store belongings makes homelessness that much more traumatic.

“For a lot of folks, not only have they had to confront a situation where they don’t have anywhere safe to go, but they also have to start from scratch – for some people, even just with the clothes on their back – and have to really leave behind trinkets of their childhood, or photos of family members who’ve passed away,” Menhennett said.

Now this location has 12 storage lockers for young people like Wise. They received them under a program started by the Pierce Family Foundation, called the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative. The group worked with other agencies serving homeless youth, like La Casa Norte, as well as several other foundations to fund and place 755 storage units at 22 program sites across the city.

“If you’re experiencing homelessness, it’s a daily, and sometimes hourly, stressor if you are constantly having to manage where your stuff is, and what you might need next, when,” said Marianne Philbin, who led the effort. She said young people go to great lengths to hang on to their belongings.

“Young people were telling us they kept things in abandoned buildings. One young woman told me she literally dug a hole in the ground in a certain spot every night and covered it up,” Philbin said.

And before the lockers, La Casa Norte had to improvise, too – using file cabinets.

“The access was limited because, since they didn’t lock, we wanted to make sure people’s belongings were protected, so a staff member had to accompany the young person to their drawer,” Menhennett said.

“And so, that took staff time away from doing all the other work that we do with our young people.”

Since the lockers have been implemented, facilities report a drop in violence at the shelters.

“I remember mediating so many issues between young people who would think that somebody had taken something from them, or young people being very understandably upset about this phone going missing when they’re trying to get jobs,” Menhennett said.

La Casa Norte hopes that as it expands it can provide bigger storage units as well.

“Sometimes we just have to keep a wait list for the lockers because if they’re all full, then the next folks who come in have to sign up for the wait list, and wait until there’s something available.”

But this location will have one more locker available soon, because Wise won’t need his anymore. He’s hoping to move into his new place in the next couple of weeks.

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In addition to lockers, the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative also added laundry services and cellphone-charging stations to help meet the needs of young people who visit the service centers.

The Pierce Family Foundation says they’ve also created a tool kit, which is accessible online, for other agencies who may want to replicate the initiative.

Follow Brandis Friedman on Twitter @BrandisFriedman

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