The 12-year-old boy who walked into the I A.M. A.B.L.E. Center for Family Development two years ago had not taken a bath in a very long time.
At his home in North Lawndale, he and the seven other residents all shared one washcloth. No one in the house owned a toothbrush.
“He couldn’t even spell cat,” said Darlene Woodall, the administrative assistant at I A.M. A.B.L.E. who aided the boy. “They were just passing him along in school.”
When the pre-teen came back the next day, Woodall gave him a toothbrush, clothes to replace his tattered ones, and access to a shower at the center. He cleaned himself up and later returned to the center to use the shower, sometimes bringing his cousin.
“His attitude was a whole different attitude,” Woodall said. “He’d say, ‘I don’t smell anymore. People don’t talk about me anymore.”
“A clean pair of underwear makes a difference to a kid who puts on the same pair of underwear every day,” she added.
Cases like these have driven educators and humanitarians to search for innovative ways to help homeless children. Publicly-funded boarding schools are being explored by the Chicago Public School system in an effort to ensure stable homes for Chicago’s youth.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated in 2005 that approximately 25,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 21 were homeless in Illinois. Of those, less than 1,100 received housing from one of the state’s youth homeless service providers. But more than half of the nearly 6,000 homeless youths who sought help were turned away, largely due to insufficient resources.
“They are very susceptible to violence on the streets,” said David Myers, executive director of Teen Living Programs, a group that works with homeless youths. “They’re very susceptible to being abused and used on the streets.”