It’s never easy being homeless.
But for 2,000 or so young people, being homeless in Chicago is especially tough.
The city has experienced high rates of violence. The weather is often bad.
Aged out of foster care, escaping dysfunctional homes, Chicago’s homeless young people try to sleep on trains. At McDonald’s. Or with dangerous folks who take them in — often for sex.
Mark Hennessy loves Chicago. It’s where he grew up; where he and his wife Tracey started a family; where their kids Jack and Mollie now live.
Hennessy is passionate about helping young people. He did it during his family’s 13 years in Westport, often through his children’s sports teams.
He did it on a larger scale too, as a longtime board member of Covenant House International. That’s the wonderful organization that offers housing, counseling and much more, through 30 programs in the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America.
Hennessy is a tireless volunteer. But he does much more than strategize. Every November, he takes part in the Covenant House “Sleep Out.” Spending a night on the street — as he’s done in 3 different cities — helps raise both money and awareness of the plight of homeless youth.
It’s an empowering event. “The stories I’ve heard, the kids I’ve gotten to know, the people I’ve met who are committed to this cause — it’s so worthwhile. And it really reminds you how difficult being homeless is.
A couple of years ago, Covenant House launched its first expansion in 17 years. Board members studied 11 cities. Chicago was identified as the most urgent.
Hennessy — who retired in 2015 after 34 years with IBM, most recently as general manager — has worked ferociously to make Lawson House a reality. Located on the corner of West Chicago Avenue and North Dearborn Street, it opened February 10.
Covenant House Illinois serves breakfast and lunch. It offers showers, laundry, storage, legal aid, mental and physical health services, drug and alcohol counseling, and educational opportunities.
Immediately, staff members went to work. A girl who showed up the first day has already been placed in long-term housing. A boy who came hours later is now receiving substance abuse treatment.
On the 2nd day, 14 youth showed up before noon.
All that happened even before the official ribbon-cutting, on Valentine’s Day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, many aldermen, and leaders of Chicago’s key service providers and foundations were there.
The mayor and many others have been steadfast supporters of Convenant House, Hennessy says.
So have a number of Westporters. Hennessy asked for help — “time, treasure and talent” — and they responded. “I’ve been so impressed by the love and compassion of this community,” he says.
He used “love” again, describing Covenant House’s philosophy.
“We treat every young person with unconditional love and support,” Hennessy says. “The kids at Covenant House are like kids everywhere. They just need a chance.”
“In these times, what we’ve done with the help of the city and so many private groups is a great example of people stepping up to make a difference,” he says.
Lawson House has been open only a few days. But Hennessy is already looking ahead.
Covenant House Illinois will team with an adult jobs program, and the University of Chicago, to develop job training for 18-24-year-olds.
He adds, “We’d really like a new facility, for residential services. We have a lot of innovative ideas.”
And, he knows, the need is definitely there.
(To learn more about Covenant House, or to donate, click here.)