A few years ago, two nonprofit organizations set out turn two abandoned North Lawndale homes into supportive housing for homeless teens.
In August 2015, Project Fierce Chicago, an organization that works to help LGBTQ youth, purchased a four-flat building in the community. Around the same time, Empowered to Succeed, a non-profit launched by West Loop-based Old St. Patrick's Catholic Church, bought a two-flat Greystone at 1922 S. Avers Ave.
The former program was geared toward LGBTQ youth, while the latter was geared toward students attending North Lawndale College Prep school. But their basic purpose is similar — to provide a stable environment for the youth while working to help them find permanent housing and connect them with whatever resources they need.
The Avers Avenue home, now known as Phoenix Hall, quietly opened in September 2017, and it already houses five students.
Meanwhile, Project Fierce's home has run into delays due to a combination of fundraising issues and the fact that permitting and interior repairs are taking longer than expected. And while they are hopeful that they would be able to open by spring, they readily allowed that it may take longer.
As previously reported by Austin Weekly News, Project Fierce was established because founder Cassandra Avenatti was concerned about rising numbers of homeless LGBT youth. Finding shelters geared towards youth is already an issue.
As Avenatti explained, her clients face additional challenges. Most shelters, she said, require trans youth to identify by their biological gender, which discourages them from going to them.
Phoenix Hall came about for similar reasons. As John Horan, the president of NLCP, explained during the Nov. 18, 2016 Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, student homelessness has been a recurring issue at his school.
Some of those teens were homeless in the sense most people understood, while others spent the nights at friends and relatives but didn't have a home to call their own.
"We figured out early on that between 5 to 8 percent of our students [or 50 to 70 a year], at any given time, were unstably house, in dangerous position or straight-up homeless," Horan said. "We figured out pretty early on we needed systemic outreach to those kids."
Most of those students are from either Austin or North Lawndale. At first, Horan simply asked teachers to take students in. While it worked at first, it became clear that it wasn't sustainable.
NLCP is part of the North Lawndale Kingship Initiative, a partnership between Old St. Patrick's and a number of North Lawndale institutions and community organizations. After Empowered to Succeed bought the building, the two organizations agreed to have the Night Ministry, a Ravenswood-based non-profit that already ran several youth transitional housing and emergency housing facilities on the North and Northwest sides.
The Project Fierce home was intended to be able to house up to 12 people. It would have a live-in resident adviser who will talk to each resident on a monthly basis and keep track of their goals. While Project Fierce was to provide some basic services, most of what it does would involve directing residents to resources and referring them to other LGBT social service organizations, such as Broadway Youth Center.
The house would have a few admission requirements — the youths must be between ages 18 and 25, they must identify as LGBT, and they must be willing to live in a group home setting. But other than that, so long as there is space, anyone else would be welcome.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Hall can house up to eight students. The youths who have children of their own can bring them in, but the building won't house more than three young children at a time. There is Night Ministry staff on site to help students will their educational goals, as well as job training and social and emotional support.
According to the fact sheet provided by the Night Ministry, NLCP councilors look for students who might need stable housing. The school and the Night Ministry also teamed up with Youth Outreach Services, a Tri-Taylor non-profit that seeks to help "at-risk" youth to reach out to teens who might need help. Each student goes through an assessment interview before they can join.
During the Nov. 18 ZBA meeting, one of the nearby residents, Carol Everett, expressed concerns about Phoenix Hall's impact on the block. Barbara Bolsen, the Night Ministry's vice president of strategic partnerships and community engagement, said that that Night Ministry did extensive outreach to the community to let them know about the project and address their concerns.
"We went door-to-door and worked very diligently on the block with our neighbors," she said. "My impression is that I know we reached out to our neighbors, asked for advice and responded to any concerns. Since we've been open, I'm not aware of any concerns [from the neighbors]."
Bolsen also said that the Night Ministry tried to give the community opportunities to get involved.
"We are developing a training program for anyone who wants to volunteer with us, to enable people in the neighborhood to become volunteers," she said. "We planted a garden next to the house, there was a big space along the south side of the house, with volunteers and young people and adults working on it."
Once the spring comes, Bolsen said, the community will see the fruits of that labor. She also said that a student advisory council to provide feedback on the project and help get the word out about the Phoenix Hall.
Meanwhile, the Project Fierce house has been running into delays. Gaylon Alcaraz, the project administrator, said that it was due to the combination of two factors. They had to make a number of repairs to shore up the building structure and bring it up to code, and that involved getting permits and clearing other legal hurdles. And the repairs themselves were expensive; moreover, fundraising is complicated by the fact that, as a matter of principle, Project Fierce doesn't apply for any government grants.
Alcaraz said that interior renovations are continuing and that Project Fierce hopes to open the facility this spring. And she noted that, even when it does open, keeping it open will be a challenge.
"We have the complete the project, but we still need to raise more [money], because we would still need to do maintenance and upkeep," Alcaraz said. "And we're working as fast as we can because [the need for] housing, especially for marginalized communities, is dire."
Full disclosure: This reporter's mother is a Night Ministry donor who currently volunteers at one of the Night Ministry's Northwest Side shelters.
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