The Promise of 'This Land Is Your Land'

Paul Hamann is being honored as a Champion of Change for his work to combat homelessness among children and youth.

I am incredibly honored and moved to have been named a White House Champion of Change. I believe, though, that this honor really needs to go to the staff and volunteers of The Night Ministry whom I just so happen to have the privilege and thrill of leading on a daily basis, as the organization’s President and CEO. The staff and volunteers are the ones who are the true champions, either directly working with clients to help them change their lives or working behind the scenes to support the mission of The Night Ministry. It is my passion and privilege to lead, develop, and to sustain the organizational context in which their work takes place. When I reflect upon my work, I really think I am one of the luckiest people in the world.

The song “This Land is Your Land” contains the following lyrics: “This land is your land. This land is my land . . . This land was made for you and me.” When I hear these words, I cannot help but think that, for some of our communities’ members, they are hollow words. Homeless youth often don’t experience or feel the promise of these lyrics. These youth who are on the streets, who are couch surfing from one friend’s home to another, who are squatting in vacant buildings, or who are exchanging sexual favors for a “safe” place to spend the night are often ignored or cast aside. Much of society doesn’t even recognize them. To realize the dream that claiming a part of the land is supposed to carry with it seems impossible for them.

They are homeless because they have fled abusive home environments, have been locked out of their houses, have been told they have to leave home because there isn’t enough money to support them, were incarcerated and released with no place to go, have dared to question their sexual orientation or have claimed their personhood by affirming themselves as a GLBTQ individual, or because they have a child or are pregnant. The list of reasons can go on. No young person wants or deserves to be homeless. Each one, though, wants and deserves to be truly safe at night, to be provided the opportunity to believe, to know, and to claim that this is their land.

In Chicago, nearly 10,000 young people experience homelessness every year, and there aren’t nearly enough resources to meet their needs. Not only are these youth homeless, but they are also dealing with all of the vagaries that adolescence carries with it. At The Night Ministry, we create programs and environments that accept youth for who they are without question and provide them with a variety of developmentally appropriate services that are the platform for them to begin to realize their dreams, to claim this land as their own. Those services form a continuum of care that includes street outreach and extends to a two-year transitional living program.

Our Response-Ability Pregnant and Parenting Program (RAPPP) is the only shelter in the City of Chicago that has beds dedicated to minor girls as young as 14 who are parenting or pregnant. In it, we have been able to demonstrate that basic supportive service to these young mothers are essential not only to finding long-term housing but to decreasing the likelihood of a subsequent pregnancy. In our two-year Transitional Living Program, one of the residents just graduated from college and is ready to start giving back to society as a public school teacher. The Crib is one of the very few emergency overnight shelter programs in the country that provides youth ages 18 – 24 with age appropriate services. Up to 80% of the youth who stay there are GLBTQ. They use the Crib’s accepting, safe, and inclusive services as a springboard for getting off of the street.

The Crib is an exciting example of what happens when homeless youth feel empowered to change their lives and to change society: to claim this land as theirs.  Homeless Experts Living Life’s Obstacles (HELLO) is an advocacy group of currently and formerly homeless youth coordinated by The Night Ministry, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and the Lakeview Action Coalition. Several years ago, HELLO caught the ear of then Mayor Richard M. Daley who listened to the youth advocate about their unique needs. As a result, the City formed the City of Chicago Task Force on Homeless Youth. Out of the task force grew an understanding of the need for an emergency overnight shelter. The City courageously listened and funded such a shelter. Thus, The Crib was born.

It is amazing what happens when youth who feel as though they have no land and are not a part of or feel disconnected from their community are given a chance to realize their dreams and are provided with a safe environment in which to begin to change their lives.

No one deserves to be homeless. No one wants to be homeless. Certainly, no young person wants to spend the day fretting about where they will spend the night or how to avoid predators on the streets. I believe that each time a youth successfully transitions from homelessness to safe and stable housing, the likelihood that they will become a chronically homeless adult decreases and the chance that they will claim a part of this country as their own and contribute towards it increases.

At The Night Ministry, we accept these youth with our hearts and use that acceptance as the platform for making changes in their lives by bringing together staff, volunteers, and concerned community members to guide them along this process. It isn’t easy work. It has its share of disappointments and frustrations. Yet, it is worth it.  It is merely my honor to lead those who make it happen.

Paul Hamann is President and C.E.O of The Night Ministry

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