• Sam Kirk

As the temperatures have begun to drop, Chicago’s homeless—and the organizations that serve them—have begun to prepare for the long winter ahead. Of course, that’s easier said than done, particularly for certain subsets.

LGBTQ youth experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate compared to the rest of the population—over 41 percent of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as queer, LGBT, or gender nonconforming. Transgender youth encounter problems accessing services when shelters require them to identify as the sex they were assigned at birth rather than their gender identity. Queer homeless youth, queer homeless youth of color in particular, also face challenges navigating the shelter system, doubly impacted by systemic racism as well as homophobia and transphobia.

With limited shelter beds and few queer- and trans-inclusive resources, the challenges are the same for queer youth in Chicago. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, over 25,000 youth are homeless in Chicago, and there are fewer than 200 overall shelter beds available each night.

At its inaugural Breakfast ‘N’ Beds brunch fundraiser earlier this month, Project Fierce, an organization devoted to creating housing and homelessness resources for Chicago’s queer youth, raised more than $17,000 to put toward its ultimate goal: opening a shelter on either the south or west side of Chicago specifically for queer youth.

Project Fierce began in April 2013, as a grassroots collective that makes decisions based on majority vote. All of the group’s organizers are volunteers; leadership focuses on community funding as the primary resource to run the program. So far the group has raised the money it needs to purchase a building, and is now working to fund one year of the various other expenses that come along with running a stable transitional housing program.

In a 2012 Reader story, queer homeless Chicago youth spoke about their difficulties in getting a bed in a shelter for the night. There are limited options, especially on the south and west sides. And as Project Fierce notes in its mission statement, queer homeless youth deal with “myriad challenges on the streets each day, including threats to physical health and safety, lack of income for sufficient food and hygiene needs, police harassment and violence, lack of access to health care and other services, lack of information and treatment of substance-dependence, and lack of access to mental health care and social support.” Project Fierce’s volunteers and the members of its leadership team were quick to emphasize the resilience and independence of young queer people living on their own—one of their priorities as an organization is establishing a youth-leadership council to advise the broader team on housing and programming decisions—but they say it’s clear that Chicago’s queer youth facing homelessness are in need of more LGBTQ-specific resources to accommodate their needs.

This fundraiser was only one piece of Project Fierce’s long-term money-raising and programmatic strategies. Many of the attendees had been involved with Project Fierce long before the brunch, whether by donating, volunteering, or hosting fundraisers of their own; for instance, one attendee, Andres Alvarez, has raised money at their punk band’s shows. “I’m overwhelmed by having so many people here—from people who have been here from the beginning to people I’ve never seen before,” said Andre Perez, one of the founding team members. All of the community building has brought the group even closer to making their shelter a reality. “Everyone should have the right to housing,” says Tasasha Henderson, an organizer on Project Fierce’s leadership team, “and so many young people in this city don’t.”