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Peer Outreach Professionals Help The Night Ministry Engage Homeless Youth

Peer-Outreach-Professional Peer Outreach Professional Sharday Hamilton is an integral part of the Youth Outreach Team. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Foundation for Women)

Sometimes there is wisdom in knowing that you don't know it all.

The Night Ministry's Youth Outreach Team makes contact with homeless young people across the city, connecting them with housing, education, vocational, and physical resources as well as providing compassionate support along their journeys to stability. But a few years ago, the Team's Youth Outreach Professionals began to realize that there were young people experiencing homelessness on the streets of Chicago that weren't being reached.

"They are really hard to find because they work really hard at not looking homeless," said Erin Ryan, Senior Vice President at The Night Ministry. "They work really hard at blending in and looking like any other teenager or young adult."

Ryan said Team members began talking about having youth accompany them on their outreach efforts to connect with the individuals they were missing.

The first group of youth to accompany the Outreach Team were members of Youth 4 Truth, the advocacy and leadership group for clients of The Night Ministry's Youth Programs, who helped identify places where the Outreach Team could find homeless youth and incorporate new ways to engage them.

Those early efforts resulted in the creation of a new position on the Outreach Team, the Peer Outreach Professional, to bolster the agency's engagement with young people on the streets.

The first hire for the position was Sharday Hamilton, who had been a client of The Night Ministry. LaShaunda Battie, Manager of Youth Engagement Services, said bringing Hamilton onto the Youth Outreach Team has produced results.

"Sharday has been able to give us a ticket into her world in terms of where youth are gathering and what is going on with social media. She has given us access to areas that we may not have known about," Battie said. "And we've definitely seen an increase in our engagement with youth."

Hamilton said she knows she is making a difference.

"Being in the same age range, I am able to communicate with young people more. They respect me because I have been through some of the same experiences and can share my story."

The position, which can run from six months to a year, was conceived in a way to help both the agency and the Peer Outreach Professional.

"What we wanted was a job that would give young people a real paycheck and real experience," Ryan said. "It is an opportunity for our Youth Outreach Professionals to coach and mentor and help young people learn what it's like to be in a professional job."

In the first months at the job, Hamilton was paired with a Youth Outreach Professional but is now conducting outreach on her own and training the newest hire in the position, who started earlier this month.

Hamilton is featured in Truth + Dare, a video produced by the Chicago Foundation for Women celebrating the accomplishments of four Chicago Women. You can watch the video here.

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