Our VoiceImmigration

Ongoing Battle with Homeless Teens Reveals Residents’ Lack of Empathy

April Callen • Dec 09, 2013

In 2011, tensions ran high at a town hall meeting in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, as several residents challenged the presence of an LGBTQA-focused youth services center. After a single street brawl in the summer of 2011, and a series of robberies in the area, residents attributed what they saw as an increase in violence and crime in the neighborhood to youth visiting in need of assistance. Two years later, contentious residents have renewed their resolve to push the youth out of Lakeview, revealing a community’s struggle with race, class, and demographic shifts they cannot control.

At the center of the drama is the Broadway Youth Center (BYC), an organization that provides a “safe space for LGBTQA youth experiencing homelessness.” There, clients – mostly Black and Brown teens – can receive food, clothing, HIV/AIDS testing, and participate in creative learning and youth leadership workshops, among other services. 

In June of this year, the Center moved its operations to a Unitarian church on a residential street, and recently learned it needs a special use permit to remain open. Similar to arguments made in 2011, members of South East Lake View Neighbors (SELVN), a three-year-old neighborhood group, have argued the move has brought an influx of crime and disturbance to an “otherwise quiet residential street.”

Like the fear-based framework successfully used by nativists, white nationalists, and those on the far right to talk about immigration, residents of the predominantly white neighborhood have consistently adopted coded language rooted in racism and classism.

At the town hall meeting in 2011, on message boards and Facebook groups, and more recently, at a SELVN meeting in November, residents have not only likened the homeless youth of color to gangs, but have also accused them of rampant drug use, vandalism, violence, and intimidation. Their presence has also been described as an invasion.

One resident at the November SELVN meeting analogized the youth and their presence in the neighborhood to someone who has the flu, stating, “They come from damaged communities and they, as young people, have become damaged […] When somebody has the flu, you do not cure their flu by bringing them into the room of people who do not have the flu.”

Another resident so boldly exclaimed, “Why should a youth center that caters to people who are homeless be in a place with million-dollar condos people worked their whole lives for […]?”

Despite being one of the most affluent and safest neighborhoods in Chicago, Lakeview, home to Boystown, the first officially recognized gay settlement in the United States, is also the only area in the city that serves to uphold and protect the LGBT community. Yet, many of the residents critical of BYC, argue that Lakeview is “not equipped” to handle such a population.

Americans across political and social identities, across culture and the political spectrum often tout “community” as a value. Community and the importance of protecting it, upholding it, is often talked about as a virtue rather than the shared occupation of a physical space. Unfortunately, however, as major cities throughout the United States – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington, DC, among others – find themselves at varying stages of transition and gentrification, longstanding residents and new city dwellers are being confronted with what it actually means to be part of a community.

Metropolitan cities once abandoned by white flight and built into unique, diverse, bustling, cultural hubs by the poor and working class, and people of color are becoming increasingly impossible and hostile for these groups to remain there. Moving beyond “safe” streets, art walks, and food festivals, building – and maintaining – community, in our present times, is not only a matter of racial justice and economic fairness, but also human dignity.

Everyone has a right to food and shelter, including young people. Safety and security should not be based on a “pay to play” or “invite-only” system. Those opposed to evolving and shared communities, whether we’re talking about immigration and the United States or social services for the disadvantaged in affluent neighborhoods, reveals sentimentality for racial and class homogeny more reserved for gated communities and exurbs of the 1950s. And while “concerned” Lakeview residents may balk at being labeled racist and classist, among other things, they, and those who support their efforts, should recognize that yelling in the faces of Black and Brown homeless teens – demanding they get a job, likening them to a virus, and placing property value above human worth, shamefully makes them exactly that.


Southeast Lake View Neighbors will vote on whether or not to support the Broadway Youth Center’s permit to operate out of the residential UCC church this evening, Monday, December 9, at 7:00 at the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago (656 W. Barry Ave.).  Supporters of BYC are asked to wear yellow in solidarity.


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