Youth ACT United States - Chicago Group
Youth ACT Chicago
Youth ACT Chicago’s mission is to bring a deeper awareness of youth in the community experiencing insecure housing. We aim to create collaborative opportunities and build advocacy platforms for ending homelessness.
Youth ACT Chicago’s vision is to strengthen the community to eradicate homelessness.
Since our group formed, we have supported the homeless community in Chicago by conducting fundraisers and participating in different service activities. We fundraised over $2500 to provide cloth masks and hygiene kits for different homeless shelters at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We also participated in service events to provide food and resources to those in need during the holiday season of 2020.
In the near future, we plan to collaborate on a project with a local non-profit that directly supports homeless youth: Youth Outreach Services. Our goal is to positively impact the lives of the homeless youth that they serve by developing a project that promotes a family-like environment where youth can feel comfortable through meaningful and fun opportunities.
Youth Act Chicago – Vicky Geraldo
The group Youth Act Chicago, or Ignis, was formed on December 2019 by a group of young people who saw an opportunity to create change in Chicago. Although the group lives in a city that generates a lot of wealth, there still exists inequalities in the community that they call home. Members of the group considered issues such as gun violence and health equity, but determined that youth homelessness in the city was an issue
that needed to be addressed. After several open and honest conversations among each other, Youth Act Chicago started their efforts to support youth experiencing homelessness in Chicago by presenting their approach to solving this issue at the EDIW Conference in Madrid, Spain in February 2020.
Approach and Information Gathering
Youth Act Chicago used an approach based on empathy to determine how the group might best support youth experiencing homelessness. Activities during meetings were carefully designed so that each member would learn to build empathy for the vulnerable group. This was critical during the early stages of the group, when our focus was to better understand the experience of youth experiencing homelessness. For example, members were tasked to find news articles related to the issue to share with the rest of the group. Another activity was watching a documentary centered on youth homelessness and then reflecting on it together. Finally, the most impactful activities that we did as a group was doing volunteer work together, where we got to interact with homeless youth themselves.
Only when the group had a proper understanding of the vulnerable group were we able to make effective decisions. In order to come up with an effective project, the group had to consider what was both valuable to homeless youth and feasible for our group to implement. We sought to get a true understanding of the issue of youth homelessness, meaning we needed to consider the perspectives of different groups, such as nonprofit organisations supporting this vulnerable group, public officials, and the youth experiencing homelessness themselves. In order to do this, our group conducted activities that allowed us to learn more about these different groups. We created a list of organisations that support homeless youth in the city and set up informational interviews with their representatives. We reached out to our local officials and asked what they were doing to support this vulnerable group. And finally, the group did volunteer work at homeless shelters to better know the experiences of youth experiencing homelessness. We reflected on these activities to come up with a list of requirements that an idea for a project must address if the group were to pursue it, When making critical decisions related to what ideas the group would pursue to support homeless youth, the group would generally come together and explore a vast array of possibilities. With the knowledge that members of the group have accumulated from activities to get to know the issue of youth homelessness, members would come up with a list of solutions that they have to solve the issue. This would be followed by the group going through the list to identify which ideas would be most valuable to youth experiencing homelessness, but also to identify ideas that felt like the group could feasibly do. Using this framework, Youth Act Chicago was able to organise impactful events throughout the years.
Other Competencies – Communication
Throughout our group’s experience, we explored and learned about many things that could make a project effective. One of the most important concepts that we learned about was the importance of communication. We had an ambitious mission of ending youth homelessness in Chicago, so it was critical for us to communicate this message in everything that we did as a group in order to garner the appropriate level of support to make our projects successful. In order to communicate this message effectively, we had to ensure that each member of the group understood the components of an effective message, we had to learn how to carefully craft any messaging that we disseminated to our audience, and we had to be mindful about the implicit and explicit messages that our messaging would have. When we organised projects to support homeless youth in Chicago, our group had to have a thorough understanding of an effective message. The first component of an effective message is an understanding of ourselves as a group. Knowing that we were a group of young adults looking to positively influence policy impacting homeless youth in Chicago made it easy to introduce ourselves to our audience. The second component of an effective message is an understanding of the message. Messages is simply what we are trying to get our audience to do. This could be a simple email asking to meet with a representative of a nonprofit. Or it could be a social media post asking our audience to contribute to a fundraising initiative. A clear message would make it easy for the audience to know what it is that is needed from them. Finally, an effective message must include an understanding of the audience. Our group had to know who our targeted audience was in order to craft an effective message. For example, if we were going to ask to meet with a public representative, we would need to make sure that we communicate in a professional manner and be prepared with all the necessary information needed for the meeting. For a social media post asking friends and family to donate to a fundraiser, we must ensure that we clearly state why the issue is important and provide clear instructions on how they might contribute. A thorough understanding of an effective message enabled Youth Act Chicago to organize effective projects to support homeless youth.
Most of our group’s messaging throughout the years involved encouraging our member’s networks to support our cause. When doing this, we made sure that our message was clear, transparent, and mindful.
When drafting emails or posting on social media, we made it a point to make sure that the message had a clear objective. For example, in an awareness campaign that the group did to raise awareness about the implications of COVID-19 on people experiencing homelessness, social media posts emphasized statistics that demonstrated the dangers that COVID-19 posed to homeless individuals. Next, we wanted to make sure that we were transparent with our audience to build trust. For fundraising campaigns, we were transparent with our audience about how much we made through social media updates. We also made sure to post pictures and updates online to communicate that the funds raised were being used in the way that they were intended. Finally, to garner support from our network, we also needed to be mindful with our communication. For example, our group wanted to be transparent with our audience about the use of raised funds by posting pictures from volunteer events. However, we needed to make sure to be careful
not to post any sensitive information that could reveal the identities of homeless youth. By communicating clear and transparent messages in a mindful way, Youth Act Chicago was able to effectively get support from our networks in Chicago to support homeless youth.
During the project, our group had the privilege to interact with different groups of people. In Chicago, we interacted with the staff of nonprofit organizations supporting homeless youth to public officials of Chicago. Additionally, our group in Chicago also communicated with other Youth Act groups in different parts of the world. This meant that we had to be mindful of the difference between the explicit and implicit communication that our messages have on these different groups. Our social media posts, updates, and emails are examples of explicit communication that our networks would physically see coming from our group. However, we also have to be mindful about how these communications are being internalized by the audience and ask ourselves if it is coming across the way that we intended it to. For example, for an awareness campaign, we had to ask ourselves whether it’s clear to the audience looking at our social media posts that Youth Act Chicago is serious about the issue of youth homelessness and that there are youthwho are in need right now. Having a better understanding of the implicit and explicit communication of our messages made us a more effective group.
Focus on the Group’s process in choosing the Homeless Youth
In thinking of a project, many were proposed but one stood out the most because of its relevance was that of providing food for homeless youth. Despite many of the initial members of the group having little to no experience with homeless youth other than volunteering at a food bank, there was a yearning to serve the personal connection of a similar age group that could easily affect anyone despite their race, gender, ability, or age. Our journey started through a few informational presentations by local groups that work with homeless youth. Through the sharing of knowledge we soon became aware that we had stumbled across a pandora’s box of what being homeless entailed. Simply put, being categorized as a homeless youth -being a state of homelessness- can start from a wide range of situations ranging from being independent and running away from home, getting kicked out of home, or being with an adult caretaker and not having a stable place to stay such as doubling up with a family member or friend. Being homeless could temporary to long-term and sheltered versus being out in the street.
With the idea of tackling a big problem we started out with an optimistic view about the many possibilities of how we could make a positive impact on the community. We were planning on visiting different shelters, volunteering at soup kitchens all to get near to our targeted homeless youth population and getting to build relationships with them so that we could create a more democratic society -give them more voice on their needs and wants. A few of us did manage to volunteer at soup kitchens that feed the general public, but we realized the need to be more direct if we wanted to help our target population of homeless youth.
As such, we stumbled upon the Chicago annual homeless persons census. Meaning, that participating with the census we could volunteer to go out in the street and ask unhoused persons if they had a place to stay that night -be part of collecting data on homeless youth. Alas, it was too last minute and we thought about focusing on the goal of making connections with homeless youth shelters. We began taking tours of homeless youth shelters to get an idea of what a typical day was like for the staff and residents and potentially finding a group of people that we could build relationships with.
Then the pandemic hit. At first we were all in a freeze, not knowing what to do -plans being put on hold, the government telling everyone to stay home. Stepping back and thinking retrospectively, of all the generations of people, this is the generation of heavy social media use and intense connectivity via the internet, thus, it was natural that we switched from meeting in person to meeting virtually. In these initial meetings we focused on thinking about what the pandemic meant to us. At least two members were directly involved on the frontline of caring for COVID-19 patients and they would share about their
exhaustion but always brought forth an optimistic personality to the meetings. For the group it was a waiting game, we wanted to continue our visits to homeless youth shelters, but we needed to wait for the stay at home mandate to be lifted. The wait was eternal, with the anxiety of being told to stay indoors – isolated- and learning about people near and far succumbing to the illness. It did not take long after we began our virtual meetings to think about what we could do from the comfort of our homes. After presenting the calls for young able-bodied youth to volunteer at places such as the food bank distribution center, we started thinking about how we could help the plainly visible homeless youth in our community without potentially spreading disease. That is when our driving essential question arose: if people are mandated to stay at home, where are the homeless supposed to go? We began to increase our research on where shelters were located and how we could help out. Of the ones we reached out to, they simply replied that they could not accept volunteers in light of mitigating the spread of disease.
Yet there that ongoing urgent call to help was ever present. Stepping back and thinking about the basic prevention of spreading the virus we thought about how good hand hygiene could have a significant impact on the wellbeing of homeless youth. We thought about the lack of places that homeless people could access clean water and soap to wash their hands. Inspired by the DIY handwashing stations that fellow citizens setup for the homeless such as in California we wanted to do the same in Chicago. In the planning stages of the project we found out that on top of gathering materials we would need to get permits for their location setup and continual maintenance. This idea -too overwhelming- made us think to scale down.
The next reality that we faced was that there was a mask shortage at the time. We thought about how homeless shelters are predictably filled to their capacity with youth from many walks of life and how placing them into tight living quarters might be detrimental during the pandemic. We began to look for
volunteers that would create and donate material or funding for cloth masks. The members of the group personally took some of the load of sewing the masks while we also proactively searched small businesses within the community to help. At the end of our dedicated time frame, we managed to donate 507 masks to homeless youth shelters. Once we started, we kept the ball running with donations coming in, we began to organise a hygiene kit giveaway and teamed up for a holiday food (including gingerbread houses) giveaway too.
Another year had gone by and the pandemic still barred us from being in person with homeless youth in shelters. We continued to build relationships with the staff at those shelters and finally were able to organise one grand in person event, a Thanksgiving meal for shelter residents and their guests. Once more this event proved how the will of wanting to make a difference in the lives of homeless youth resulted in a memorable moment of togetherness as one humanity. Yet our work was far from being done. Little by little our ideas began to blossom as we brainstormed ideas of taking the homeless youth residents out on excursions outside the city or thinking more concretely, within to experience Chicago’s different neighbourhoods. Realistically one of the last major events we helped with was a school supply giveaway.
Soon enough the pandemic began to subside and the time that we had during the pandemic because of all the closures/shut downs began to diminish as members were returning to their own routines.
Throughout these years members of our group have come and gone, yet a handful have stayed steadfast. In all, we have learned that together we can make a difference. One person can add a bit to each step along the way as they are able to do so. The cycle of homelessness is neverending. Until enough funding is set aside for the development of affordable housing and mental health there will be reason to believe that small steps such as ours may not create any significant change in our democracy, however that desire to build communication with youth and help them feel like useful, heard, citizens in their community.
Preparing for New York/United Nations
Youth Act Chicago had the privilege of collaborating with Youth Act Miami to prepare for the EDIW New York Seminar. The most significant part of the New York seminar was the opportunity for youth leaders to learn about the United Nations. The programming for this part of the seminar was largely handled by EDIW leaders. The focus of the youth leaders of Chicago and Miami was ensuring that we properly introduce our peers from Europe and Latin America to a country that in its history provided opportunity to countless immigrants through a culture of democracy. As the hosts of this seminar, we made sure that we put together a program that youth leaders visiting would find both enjoyable and engaging. In order to do this, youth leaders from Chicago and Miami conducted research on New York city to put together walking tours of the most iconic parts of the city. We also wanted the youth leaders from Europe and Latin America to learn about the issues that our individual groups were tackling here in the US. To accomplish this, an information session and tour of the Covenant House New York, an organization tackling youth homelessness in New York City, was organized so youth leaders would appreciate how complex the issue of homelessness really is. Additionally, a speaking event at CUNY (City University of New York) focused on the experiences of undocumented students in New York was organized to let youth leaders better understand the challenges that undocumented students experience to obtain higher education in the US. Overall, planning this seminar required strong communication and commitment from everyone involved, but seeing how everything came together during the seminar made all the hard work worth it.
Since the beginning of the Youth Act project, members of Youth Act Chicago have learned from their experiences supporting homeless youth. In the early stages of the project, Chicago youth leaders learned that solving the issue of homelessness among youth is complex and requires the participation of many different parties. Additionally, members learned that strong communication among the group was necessary in order to accomplish our goals, especially since a global pandemic added both uncertainty and urgency to their work. Most importantly, the group learned that empathizing with homeless youth was a critical first step that kept the group motivated and disciplined throughout the project.
Youth Act Chicago was also fortunate in that they had the support of EDIW and the larger Youth Act International groups. Having regular access to a network of motivated youth leaders in other parts of the world made it feel like they were a part of a larger collective effort to make change. The regular EDIW international conferences and webinars were a constant source of inspiration for Youth Act Chicago leaders to continue their effort supporting vulnerable youth in Chicago. Overall, being a part of the Youth Act project continues to make each member proud. The Youth Act project provided the group an opportunity to make an impact in their community. Most importantly, the project taught the youth leaders that they
truly do have the power to make an impact in their community.