For most of its existence, the gray building at 1922 S. Avers Avenue hasn’t been that much different from the surrounding two-flats on a quiet residential block between 19th Street and Ogden Avenue.
But, in a few months, it will become something its neighbors have never seen before.
The North Lawndale College Prep school has teamed up with the Night Ministry and Empowered to Succeed nonprofit groups to convert the building into co-ed transitional housing for homeless students. It will be able to house up to eight students at a time and the Ministry staff will be on site to help them. The students will be able to bring their children, but the facility won’t have more than three children in total.
Before the project could get off the ground, it had to be cleared with the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals. The board approved the project in November.
John Horan, the president of NLCP, explained to the zoning board that 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 percent and 8 percent [or 50 to 70] of our students, at any given time, were unstably housed, 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, Horan said, are from either Austin or North Lawndale. The lack of stable housing hurts those students’ ability to do well academically. After all, Horan said, it was hard to concentrate on studying when they had to worry about where they were going to sleep.
At first, Horan said that he simply asked teachers to take students in. While that approach worked initially, it became clear that it wasn’t sustainable.
NLCP is part of the North Lawndale Kingship Initiative, a partnership between West Loop’s St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church and a number of North Lawndale institutions and community organizations.
Horan reached out to Old St. Patrick’s for help. The church established Empowered to Succeed, a non-profit specifically designed to address youth housing instability in the community. It wound up buying the house at Avers Avenue.
The Night Ministry is a Ravenswood-based nonprofit that has been helping the homeless for the past 40 years. It already runs several youth transitional housing and emergency housing facilities on the North and Northwest sides. As Horan explained to the zoning board, Night Ministry had the experience to help his students, so partnering with them was a natural choice.
He told the board that he hopes that this project would be the first step in addressing youth homelessness in North Lawndale.
“We start with NLCP and based on what we learn, we’ll see if we can expand to other schools,” Horan said. “We hope we’ll have100 more kids and start 10 more of those [facilities].”
While the Avers Avenue house will be the first project of its kind of this particular group of organizations, it won’t be unique to North Lawndale. Project Fierce Chicago is currently working to turn another residential building into transitional housing facility for LGBTQ youth. According to the organization’s Facebook page, they are currently raising money for the interior remodeling.
Paul Hamann, the Night Ministry’s president and CEO, told the board that his organization did extensive outreach in the community for the past 14 months
“We attended a lot of community events, hosted community events, barbecues and pizza nights,” he said, adding that they went door-to-door and talked to North Lawndale elected officials and church leaders.
Jennie Merritt, who will run the facility’s day-to-day operation, said that the outreach will continue once it opens.
“Continue my position as the community liaison,” she said. “We want a full-time person to continue engaging with the community.”
Hamann said that the facility could open by March 2017, but added that the opening could be later.
In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter’s mother is a regular donor to Night Ministry.