The demolition signs outside 123 S. Green Street solicit little, if any, attention to themselves. After all, sleek condo complexes go up so often in the West Loop, one hardly notices when a dilapidated building is torn down and replaced by enormous steel beams and early morning construction crews. But this particular building was more than just another deserted warehouse. It was recently home to the Chicago Christian Industrial League (CCIL) and its 300 homeless residents.
In August, the organization moved to North Lawndale at 2750 W. Roosevelt. The North Lawndale building is shiny and new, and morale among residents and staff is up after the move from the dingy Green Street facility.
The $25.2 million building houses a computer lab, a glistening cafeteria, classrooms up to par with any university, and dorm-like residences and offices. There’s also on-site landscaping training, playrooms for children and ample conference rooms for holding Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
The organization moved into its Green Street location in 1975, filling Gazolla Drug Company’s former industrial space. The facility served as both office headquarters and as a home to down-and-out men, single moms and their children.
Founded in 1909 by Rev. George Kilbey, a Presbyterian minister, the CCIL was formed to help the community’s struggling men get back on their feet. Kilbey saw that the men in Greektown and surrounding neighborhoods, then one of the city’s poorest sections, needed resources to help them engage in the workforce after bouts with unemployment and homelessness. The CCIL still serves Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, including in its new location in North Lawndale, the city’s poorest community.
“We just didn’t match the neighborhood anymore,” said Albert Tanquera, CCIL’s volunteer coordinator, of their former West Loop home.
Look at the surroundings of the organization’s former neighborhood and one sees a sea of mid-rise condo buildings, a smattering of chic restaurants and an army of urbanites, brief cases in hand, heading to the Loop each morning. Not your typical turf for a homeless shelter. But then, CCIL isn’t your standard homeless shelter.
Residents enter an 18-month program that aims to teach job and life skills to the homeless. They pay $50 a month in rent. To be accepted into the facility, prospective residents must be referred by another agency, such as the Department of Human Services. Enabling the homeless to secure employment and improve their lives has remained the CCIL’s goal throughout the years.
“The CCIL is not just a shelter; we invest in people and it is a transitional place,” said Jenny Brandhorst, communications manager.
Program participants must show they are serious about changing their lives. This is not a place to get clean and sober; this is the place to go after you’re clean and sober. “We are like a bridge between homelessness, despair and poverty and a better life,” explains Judy McIntyre, the organization’s executive director.
Residents are taught job skills, (how to write a resume), and life skills, (how to open a bank account).
One popular program is landscaping training. Residents learn the craft of landscaping and are responsible for maintenance and beautification of some city parks, including Priztker Park and Morgan Street Park. They walk away from the program with hands-on experience and a resume to land a job in landscaping.
These programs are the heart and soul of the CCIL. They empower residents and equip them with tools to succeed, the organization’s employees believe. The Greektown building wasn’t able to hold all of the organization’s services, and some were shut down because of lack of space. It became apparent that either extensive renovations or a move to a new facility was needed.
“There was no way to renovate the place without a very big disruption in services. And that wasn’t fair to our residents,” explained Tanquera. “We are responsible for 300 people’s lives, and we had to keep that in mind. This is not a case where the developer came and lured us out with a great offer.”
Many of CCIL’s Greektown volunteers walked from home to serve at the center. CCIL will count on new volunteers from the surrounding neighborhoods, but still welcomes those from the West Loop.
“Most of our volunteers are still interested in coming here, but it is a bit more west so it’s harder to get to,” said Tanquera.
For more information about the Chicago Christian Industrial League, call 773/435-8300 or visit www.theleague.org. To volunteer, call Albert Tanquero at 773/ 435-8385, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.