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National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Get to Know a Grantee: The Night Ministry

Night Ministry resident in their room

The Night Ministry offers shelter, health care, and social services, and more to unhoused people of all ages in Chicago. Their youth-focused programming began nearly 30 years ago, and they have been a Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantee for that same time. The National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families (NCHYF) spoke to Betsy Carlson, MSW, The Night Ministry’s director of youth programs, to learn about their work and the way it has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

What sets your organization apart from other similar organizations?

The Night Ministry is a pioneer in providing innovative and impactful solutions for youth experiencing homelessness in Chicago through our six Youth Housing Programs. These range from emergency shelter to permanent housing, as well as our Youth Outreach Team. Nine years ago, we opened the first emergency, overnight shelter in the city of Chicago for young adults. More recently, we began operating one of the only housing programs in the country to exclusively serve the needs of high school students experiencing housing instability. We also operate the only shelter in the city to reserve beds for pregnant and parenting mothers as young as 14.

In August 2020, we are opening our newest program, a collaboration with several Chicago providers to leverage flexible housing subsidies and intensive case management for youth. The Night Ministry has developed a data-driven culture of learning across the agency, allowing us to capitalize on approaches that work and pivot away from those that don’t, resulting in better outcomes for the young people we serve every year. Our staff are trained across evidence-based modalities such as trauma-informed care, LGBTQ-competency, harm reduction, motivational interviewing, and restorative justice.

We are also unique in how we elevate the voices of the young people we serve. We actively solicit feedback from our clients through anonymous surveys, forums, community discussions, and one-on-one conversations. This feedback informs our programming, policies, and trainings. Our Youth 4 Truth leadership development program is a training ground for young people to explore their interests and their passions in a supportive environment. Many participants have gone on to advocate on behalf of homeless youth before national and local lawmakers. One youth took part in a presentation about Youth 4 Truth at the National Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Grantees Training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last November. Alumni of the Youth 4 Truth are a part of The Night Ministry’s Youth Advisory Board, which meets with the agency’s Board of Directors to provide youth voice in their strategic work.

Runaway and homeless young people are vulnerable in normal times, but COVID-19 has made that situation even more difficult. How has this virus impacted your work and how are you adjusting?

The Night Ministry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is continually evolving, based on the shifting local conditions of the pandemic, health and safety guidelines, and, most importantly, the needs and experiences of the young people we serve. During Illinois’ Shelter in Place Order, we saw few RHY entering our programs; those who did were swiftly reunited with family. Now, in Illinois’ Phase 4, we are seeing more frequent needs for shelter from RHY.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been in constant communication with city officials, local partners, and our state and federal agencies to discern and discuss best practices to address COVID-19 concerns. We were lucky to have support of medical professionals on staff as well as donor and city resources to quickly acquire masks, in particular, and to implement rigorous sanitation and distancing measures. To counter misinformation about the coronavirus, our staff provided accurate, straightforward information about the pandemic to our young people. As with most youth-serving agencies, it continues to be a challenge to convince young people to wear masks and to minimize their exposure to others, but patience and vigilance have prevailed and most young people we serve are observing the CDC’s recommendations. Simple incentives like pizza, ramen, and small gift cards have helped immensely, as have additional Netflix logins!

The wider impact of the pandemic on homeless youth has been devastating — job losses, delays in independent housing placements, further isolation, transportation issues, and so much more. Our focus has been on keeping our clients safe and healthy, and helping them maintain their progress as well. When Illinois’ Shelter in Place Order went into effect, we began operating The Crib, our overnight shelter for youth 18-24, around the clock. So, across our five programs at the time, we had more than 160 young people with us 24 hours a day over the course of several months during which we continued offering basics such as shelter and meals in addition to providing daily health screenings, educational support, telephone- and video-assisted case management and mental health counseling, and socially distant recreational activities. At the same time, many of the services available to young people, such as drop-in centers, were either unavailable or access to them was greatly restricted. Even more than usual, our staff were consistently assessing what our young people needed and how to help them get those needs met. In some cases, this was particularly important for our clients who were not currently residing in our housing programs. We offered virtual help with tracking down stimulus payments and signing up for benefits and even delivered groceries to program alumni and their families who had lost income or who were not able to go shopping because of health concerns or transportation issues. Despite the challenging environment, several of the young people in our programs have transitioned to permanent housing, others graduated high school, and many have found employment.

What do you wish more people in your community (or the country) understood about youth homelessness?

Youth homelessness is a hidden condition. There is so much stigma attached to homelessness, and young people experiencing it have honed techniques for blending in so they’re not noticed. Homeless youth are vastly undercounted. For many, homelessness is couch-surfing with relatives or family, so they are missed by street surveys or are not in shelter databases. We have to be not only ready to welcome those who come to us seeking services, but to seek out those who could benefit from our help as well.

It’s also important to recognize that homeless youth are adolescents and young adults. They’re still developing physically, emotionally, and mentally, like all teenagers and people in their early 20s. They face the same challenges that their peers do, but with the added trauma of homelessness and other adverse experiences. They need to be shown the same understanding and compassion that we would give to any young person and be given the same opportunities to just be young – to have fun, enjoy new experiences, meet new people, make mistakes, and grow.

How long have you had a FYSB grant?

The Night Ministry has been a FYSB grantee for about 30 years.

What other sources of funding are essential to your programs?

Our programs are funded by local, state, and federal government grants, grants from private and family foundations, individual donations, support from corporations and community groups, and special events.

What have been your most important collaborations with local partners?

Because 7 in 10 youth who experience homelessness also struggle with mental health challenges, we’ve partnered with Rush University Medical Center to provide psychiatric evaluation, medication management, and mental health counseling to residents of our housing programs. We also collaborate with a state-organized network of agencies to facilitate family reunification, if possible, for every minor who enters our programs. Additionally, we connect our young people who are interested in advocacy with One Northside, a Chicago-based organization working for fair and affordable housing policies, mental health justice, and police accountability. Many of the youth served by The Night Ministry have become employed by One Northside as advocates and community organizers.

About the Get to Know a Grantee series

NCHYF developed the Get to Know a Grantee questionnaire to illustrate the great variety of youth-serving FYSB grantees, to share their insights, experiences, and ideas, and to inspire collaboration.

We regularly share responses from RHY grantees to build understanding about the needs of runaway and homeless youth or, for grantees, to highlight new approaches or strategies to inspire the work to support vulnerable youth. Please contact NCHYF if you have a grantee program for NCHYF to consider.