Two years ago, a group of social workers decided that they weren’t happy with the way the City of Chicago had been handling youth homelessness.
They wanted to build a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth could live comfortably; a place where they could stay while they try to find more permanent housing and employment. The staff would refer them to area social service organizations and help them make progress on their goals. The envisioned the house, first and foremost, as a welcoming, supportive environment where the youth would feel comfortable being themselves.
In August 2015, the grassroots collective Project Fierce Chicago purchased a four-flat building in North Lawndale that had been foreclosed upon. According to Project Fierce founder Cassandra Avenatti, the contractors are currently hard at work renovating the building, which she hopes will start accepting residents by spring.
Avenatti said that the North Lawndale facility was only the beginning. Eventually, Project Fierce hopes to open similar facilities in Austin, South Shore and other neighborhoods throughout Chicago. The goal is consistent with her organization’s mission to create “an affirming transitional living space for LGBTQ youth,” according to its website.
Avenatti, in addition to other members of Project Fierce’s leadership team, decided to establish the organization three years ago due to concerns about the rising number of homeless youth, especially LGBT youth.
Most of the Chicago homeless shelters were geared toward adults and the ones that were geared toward the youth — such as the Night Ministry’s the Crib — only had a limited amount of space. They also didn’t address the specific needs of LGBTQ young people, who Avenatti said face unique challenges.
Most shelters require transgender youth to identify by their biological gender, which discourages them from taking advantage of them, she said. And LBGTQ youth are more likely to face discrimination and ostracism in the wider society.
“Our goal is to reduce LGBTQ homelessness in Chicago and provide identity-affirming transitional housing,” Avenatti said, adding that Project Fierce desires to operate independently from government funding.
Since the organization’s establishment two years ago, Project Fierce’s membership has focused its efforts on recruiting volunteers and raising funds. The purchase of the four-flat in North Lawndale was driven by a desire serve neighborhoods where there were prominent service gaps for LGBTQ young people — which is what brought them to the West Side.
Avenatti said when LGBTQ individuals from the West and South Sides seek out services aimed at their unique needs, they usually end up having to travel north to the Boystown neighborhood. Avenatti said she the organization wanted to change that.
The North Lawndale building proved more than suitable for the organization’s goals. It was located within a reasonable distance from public transit and various amenities.
“We’re very close to transit, there are groceries and other things that are fairly easy to get to,” she said. “We’re happy to be here.”
Avenatti said the organization had looked for a building within Austin, which she felt “was a very cool community,” but they didn’t find anything that suited their needs.
The North Lawndale property, which the organization purchased in August, will house up to 12 people after renovations are completed. Although it will provide some basic services, most of the Project Fierce’s functions will involve working with youth to find employment and independent living arrangements. The house will come with a live-in resident advisor, who will help direct residents to resources and refer them to other LGBTQ social service organizations like Broadway Youth Center.
Avenatti said the community’s response to the project has been largely positive.
“We got positive responses about the project coming to the community, making an unproductive space productive,” she said.
“Youth homelessness isn’t going to go away any time soon. We are hoping to eventually purchase a home in Austin, in South Shore and in several other locations in the city.”