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Sleepless night under Chicago stars affords time to contemplate youth homelessness

Covenant House’s annual Sleep Out Chicago event, held last week, raised nearly $500,000 for a shelter that targets homeless 18- to 24-year-olds.

Covenant House, a homeless service provider that targets 18- to 24-year-olds, held its annual Sleep Out Chicago event overnight Nov. 18-19, with the goal of raising $500,000.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Snow flurries were falling Thursday evening in East Garfield Park when we arrived at Covenant House, a shelter and resource center for young people experiencing homelessness.

It was one last sign to make me doubt the wisdom of my promise to join the organization’s annual Sleep Out Chicago event raising funds for — and awareness about — youth homelessness.

What made me think I could withstand even one night outside in sub-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 the only thing to do was hope that I’d brought along the proper clothing for sleeping out 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 that came to Chicago in 2017 and recently opened a new facility at 2934 W. Lake.

Covenant House provides lodging for up to 40 young people a night — with plans to expand soon to 60 — while offering them an array 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. Because of limited space, only the top 50 fundraisers were invited to pitch their sleeping bags on a piece of cardboard (no tents) at the on-site event. Others slept out in backyards and on basement floors.

Before anyone ventured outside, however, we received a tutorial on youth homelessness and Covenant House’s role in addressing it.

Youth homelessness is a largely invisible problem.

Most of the young people experiencing homelessness aren’t staying under viaducts or in shelters, although hundreds are. The majority are doubled up with friends or family members in situations that often leave them vulnerable.

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

“It should just be zero,” said Jim Coleman, the Accenture executive who chaired this year’s fundraising effort. 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 youth facing homelessness 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 fail to capture the resilience of young people like Chrissy, a teenage mom who told the story of pulling her life together at Covenant House after years of homelessness that began when she was 12.

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

Around 11 p.m., we were instructed to bed down for the night on a cement slab in Covenant House’s fenced-in courtyard.

As it turned out, I had prepared well for the cold and managed to stay toasty through the night.

Getting to sleep was another matter. I’m a restless sleeper under normal circumstances with an aversion to the confinement of sleeping bags. Within minutes, I had twisted mine in knots.

The result was that I didn’t even sleep a minute and was grateful when many of my fellow “sleepers” called it quits at 5:30 a.m., although my own goal had been 6 a.m.

The advantages of staying up all night included getting to watch the nearly total lunar eclipse as it slid across the West Side sky — and a chance to think about what it might be like to really be homeless, which I clearly understand is a whole other animal entirely.

Many of my fellow sleepers awoke talking about how they got through the night knowing that they could now go home to a warm bed and hot meal and shower, but realized actual homelessness offers no such respite.

By morning, Covenant House Illinois reported it was closing in on its fundraising goal of $500,000,

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