For many of us, our teen years are a carefree time – a last chance to enjoy the last moments of childhood before taking on the responsibilities of adult life. Jerrod, a resident of Heartland Alliance’s Neon Street Dorms, didn’t get that opportunity.
He grew up in a loving home on Chicago’s south side, raised by his mother – an employee of the City of Chicago who enjoyed a stable job and dependable pay, but as the economy worsened her job was cut. Unable to find a job that paid a living wage for nearly two years and struggling to pay rent, Jerrod’s mother was unable to pay rent and her family was evicted. Jerrod found himself scrambling for somewhere to turn.
“I stayed with my aunt for a little bit but she had her own life to worry about,” Jerrod said of those first hard days. “I had to find a way to handle it on my own.”
Early each morning he lined up at a local emergency shelter and wait, hoping he’d arrived early enough to get a bed for the night and a hot meal. He knew employment and job training were the way into a stable life, and he began his hunt immediately.
“At the shelter I got into a job training program and got a job in warehousing. But I got laid off, and I was back at square one,” Jerrod said. “[Shelter staff] told me about Neon [Street Dorms] and I went that day. I couldn’t believe all the things you can get there. They help you do so much.”
On a drop in basis, teens ages 14-24 who self-identify as homeless have access to a wide array of services. On site, Neon Street Dorms provides laundry facilities, showers, phones, fax machines, computers, employment case management, counseling related to substance use, mental, and physical health, as well as education planning, and life skill building among others. Youth ages 18-24 are also eligible to receive on-site transitional housing for up to 24 months (or up to their 24th birthday).
“The real difference isn’t just that our kids are prepared for employment,” says Mark Ruckdaeshel, Heartland Alliance employee at Neon Street Dorms. “It’s that they see they’re worth investing in, and that if they work hard, they can have success. Their past doesn’t define them – they do.”