Yusuf was only a few months shy of his 18th birthday when his relationship with his family deteriorated to the point that they couldn’t live under the same roof anymore.

His mother had succumbed to cancer three years earlier. He said his father became distant, and his sister was taking advantage of him financially. So, he just left.

“You don’t know how crazy it goes,” the now 19-year-old said of his eight months living on the streets, begging for bus cards and food. “I wouldn’t be sane without [my Muslim faith].”

According to the most recent study by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, released in 2006, there were more than 7,200 unaccompanied youth ages 13 to 21 living on the streets of Chicago. For homeless youth like Yusuf, who preferred to be identified by his Muslim name, finding shelter from the elements is difficult.

Even harder is finding a supportive community and an outlet for creative expression.

To address this need, La Casa Norte, a Chicago organization that provides shelter and assistance for homeless families and youth, opened a drop-in center called Casa Corazon in the Humboldt neighborhood on Monday. Homeless youth can stop by the two-level facility at 3328 W. North Ave. between 5 and 8 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays, to meet other teenagers and receive assistance from staff mentors.

“We hope to touch 500 youth in one year,” said Executive Director Sol Flores. “Young people need access to jobs and housing. We need to have focus on homelessness because it impacts everyone.”

About 50 community members and homeless youth living in the organization’s shelters gathered at Casa Corazon last Wednesday for its open house, which showcased a poetry reading and musical performances by homeless youth.

One former homeless youth, Laic Ngoma, 16, said he might come to the shelter after school.

“This makes me feel good,” said Ngoma, who now lives at La Casa Norte’s Solid Ground shelter for homeless boys. “I can relax, do homework and meet other people.”

To learn more

• Casa Corazon/La Casa Norte
• 3328 W. North Ave.
• 773-276-4900 ext. 222
• www.lacasanorte.org