As a homeless college student in the 1980s, Anne Holcomb had zero options for storing important documents like her birth certificate and social security card. She put them in a couple of baggies, dug a hole in the ground behind the abandoned building where she slept, buried them, and hoped for the best.
More than three decades later, Holcomb works with homeless youth in Chicago, and they still lack access to safe storage options. Storing one’s possessions when homeless isn’t a trivial issue. Having a secure place to keep your belongings makes it easier to stay in school or find a job or housing, and can even prevent violence. Day to day, it alleviates stress about feeling that important possessions are in jeopardy of being lost, stolen, discarded, or damaged.
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, as of June 2015, 11,447 city youth ages 14-21 were homeless or living on their own, without support from a guardian or family member. Chicago Public Schools identified 20,205 students experiencing homelessness or housing instability in the 2014-2015 school year. Yet only 374 youth shelter beds exist throughout the city, and fewer than 40 storage lockers or cabinets to secure belongings are available to homeless youth.
The need for safe and easily accessible storage solutions was mentioned repeatedly at the recent Chicago Summit on LGBT Youth Homelessness, and that call echoed in youth shelters throughout the city.
“I lost a lot of clothes,” says Anthony “Pluto” J., who grew up in abandoned buildings on Chicago’s South Side and often spends nights at Ujima Village, a shelter for people age 18-24 located on the border of the Englewood and Auburn Gresham neighborhoods, and one of only seven overnight youth homeless shelters in the entire city.
“You don’t want to carry [bags] to an interview, so I dropped them,” he says. “Right there in the alley. Or I’ll hide them under a bush. Come back and someone had taken it. I lost a lot of clothes like that.”
These days, he stores some of his items with the mother of his child, but avoids going to her place to get them because it often leads to arguments.
Other homeless youth hide their clothes and items in abandoned buildings, says Christian Hall, who also finds shelter most evenings at Ujima. One young woman, Stacey Harris, keeps her son’s birth certificate and other records at her mother’s house, but stashes her own belongings—three backpacks full—in an abandoned building.
Walking around with several bags makes you a moving target, say the homeless youth I spoke with, who fear getting jumped either on the streets or in the shelters themselves. Others fear they’ll be ridiculed for bringing bags to school, so they leave them somewhere in the hopes that they’ll still be there when they return.
Realizing the problem, the Pierce Family Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, and the Knight Family Foundation came together to fund the Chicago Youth Storage Initiative last November. Led by Lara Brooks, the initiative supports the City of Chicago’s Plan 2.0: A Home for Everyone, a seven-year action plan designed to help homeless people access stable and affordable housing and employment.
Brooks and her colleague Ka’Riel Gaiter, both of whom participated in the summit, led focus groups with young people and shelters to identify where it made the most sense to install lockers.
During their research, Gaiter was surprised to learn that most homeless youth actually don’t want their items to be held where they stay overnight. “They want 24-hour surveillance, familiar faces, not to have a lot of people coming and going. And [they want] it be confidential, so no one knows they’re using or needing the space,” Gaiter says.
The other issue is one of trust. “Young people need to trust that these programs are going to be organized and secured,” says Brooks. “Trust is of utmost importance.”
Brooks and her team began to consider adding storage lockers to existing facilities or in close proximity to a youth program, so the effort is “relationship-based and serve[s] as a humanizing point of contact.”
The first 67 lockers are slated to be installed at Ujima next month, replacing old lockers in the former grammar school building. Each new locker at Ujima will be 15 inches wide and 6 feet tall, and have the capacity to fit approximately two carry-on suitcases. Smaller lockers will be available at transitional or interim housing programs and drop-in centers with limited space.
According to Brooks, 250 storage units will be installed in 10 locations around Chicago by the end of 2017. The hope is that the program becomes a model for other cities.
Everyone at Ujima is excited to be part of the pilot, even though some grumble that they’ve been talking about these storage lockers for what seems like forever and are only now starting to see progress. “Having these lockers is going to benefit us a lot,” says Pluto, who looks forward to having a warm coat to wear come winter—and a place to store it come spring.
Hall—who has lost his birth certificate, social security card, and ID three times—is eager to having a safe place to store those items until he can save enough from his part-time job to get an apartment. Harris is hoping to complete training as a security officer so she can move into her own place, too, and the lockers will help her store clothing while she goes to training.
For now, the lockers will be available through a homeless youth program or shelter for free as long as people need them. Also in the works is an app that helps people find available beds in shelters; Brooks hopes it will soon integrate available lockers, too. Yet another strategy being devised is virtual: It will allow people to upload important documents such as transcripts and their birth certificate into a secure, cloud-based system.
Holcomb remembers the days when she had no safe place to store her important documents and mementos. She cleverly hid her scrapbook and some other memorabilia in the attic of her college dorm. They were still there a couple of years later when she went to retrieve them. But whatever wasn’t buried or stored in that attic was gone.