Keavon Cooper, 17, was a troubled teen who dropped out of high school, got into some trouble, and ended up in the juvenile justice system.
But two years ago, he was referred to Phalanx Family Services, a 15-year-old nonprofit working in South Side Roseland and Pullman, which provided him with counseling, helped him get back in school and get a job.
“Before I got into this program, I didn’t have the same mindset I do now,” said Cooper, currently working at Wendy’s, with plans to enter a construction training program. “They helped me with my attitude, how I look at life.”
Cooper represents what many in social work call “Opportunity Youth,” a population the city is targeting with significant new grant initiatives expected to be announced Thursday, including half a million dollar grant to launch a Reconnection Hub in Roseland for youth disengaged from school or employment.
About 60,000 Chicago youths ages 16-24 fit that category, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study — 46.6 percent of young black males and 20 percent of Latino peers in underserved South Side and West Side neighborhoods, compared to 10 percent of young white males.
“This builds off of our commitment to mentoring, my belief that every adolescent needs a mentor, who play crucial roles in helping kids make the right choices in life,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.
The $500,000 grant will fund a one-stop shop for Opportunity Youth seeking help getting their lives back on track, and hiring fairs in Roseland, Englewood and Little Village, each targeting 300-plus such youth. Another $670,000 will fund a hub that began as a pilot program last year in Auburn-Gresham.
Another $300,000 will expand Choose to Change, a community-based program targeting Chicago Public Schools students ages 13-18 in Englewood. It’s shown a 47% reduction in violent arrests for youth up to two years post-participation, according to a University of Chicago study.
“The need is here. We see it everyday,” said Tina Sanders, CEO of Phalanx, which will run the Roseland hub with Metropolitan Family Services.
“A lot of our youth are dealing with so many issues you have to wade through before enrolling them in anything — poverty, homelessness, dysfunctional families, gang pressure or involvement, basic needs like work clothes, transportation,” she said. “This grant will allow us to serve anyone who walks through that door, meet them right where they are, and help put them on a path to success, whatever that is.”
The hub grew out of a $350,000 pilot program, called Strong Futures, operated at St. Sabina in partnership with 20 Auburn-Gresham organizations, from June to December 2017. Funded by the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services, strong Futures aimed to help Opportunity Youth in an area with the city’s sixth-highest unemployment rate for youths over age 16, one of its ZIP codes home to the city’s third-highest number of incarcerated juveniles.
Strong Futures provided a range of resources to 50 participants geared toward helping them to become employable and find employment — 58 percent had criminal records, 44 percent lacked high school diplomas. Help provided included expungement and education, as well as mental health/medical services, housing, Internet access, I.D.’s, work clothes and transportation. In the end, 70 percent of participants were helped to find full-time employment.
“The Auburn-Gresham community had reached out to the mayor directly about this large population completely disconnected from school and work, and the mayor asked us to go see what we could do,” said Lisa Morrison Butler, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.
“We came up with the pilot, and at the same time, were working with Thrive Chicago, which had convened 40 nonprofits to tackle the challenge for this population citywide, who find it hard to navigate the system of agencies and programs designed for them, and become frustrated and discouraged,” she said. “The hub was a no-brainer.”
Additional hubs are being planned this year for the West Side, in North Lawndale and Little Village/South Lawndale. A hub for Austin is also on the drawing board. One takeaway from discussions by the 40 citywide groups over the course of nine months last year was that this population needed longer than the usual one-year program time frame. Each will be funded for a minimum of 18 months, with a division of the University of Chicago Urban Labs tracking results.
Thrive Chicago, with a mission to bring the city’s youth-focused entities together for collaboration, will work with the new hubs, copied from Boston and Los Angeles, to identify sustainable funding.
“Hubs will make it possible for a young person to walk into one building and be connected with a caring adult who will help them successfully access services from all the organization and city agencies in their neighborhoods, and the hiring fairs will be specifically tailored to these out-of-school and out-of-work youth,” said Thrive President Sandra Abrevaya. “We’re thrilled with our collective progress in addressing the challenge of 60,000 youth.”