It will be something of a homecoming for Englewood-based Primo Center.

The nonprofit organization, which works to help families struggling with homelessness get back on their feet, got its start in West Garfield Park and it operated a transitional housing facility in Austin until a few years ago. When it moved its headquarters to Englewood, it consolidated some operations, and the shelter was closed as part of that consolidation.

Now Primo Center is opening a new transitional housing facility for homeless women and children in a renovated apartment building in the southeastern corner of the Austin neighborhood, at 4952-58 W. Madison St. This required a Special Use permit — which the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals granted during its Sept. 20 meeting. The company now expects to open the facility sometime before April 2020.

Primo Center was originally founded in 1978 by Bishop Quintin Primo Jr., an Afro-Guanian immigrant. Originally known as the Urban Center of St. Barnabas, it set out to help Garfield Park residents who suffered from the effects of disinvestment in the neighborhood. The organization now focuses on making sure families, especially women and children, have safe, stable homes, and that they get support and access to the resources they will need to maintain stable, healthy lives. 

Primo Center currently has headquarters and transitional housing in Englewood, at 6212 S. Sangamon St., as well as two transitional housing facilities in North Lawndale, at 1609 and 1615 S. Homan Ave., and a supportive housing facility in West Humboldt Park, at 4231 W. Division St.

Nancy Radner, Primo Center’s chief development officer, said they wanted to return to Austin because the organization was conscious of its West Side roots and because the need was still there.

“The city of Chicago asked us to find a site to open more beds, and we wanted to be back [as] a part of the Austin community,” she said. 

During the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, Danielle Meltzer-Cassel, Primo Center board member who also serves as the organization’s attorney, explained that they intend to provide transitional housing for homeless mothers and children, adding that some families may include men. The building was designed with storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the remaining two floors, and Meltzer-Cassel said they planned to lease that retail space to a local nonprofit “or even an area business.” She mentioned that the building suffered heavy fire damage, so much work still had to be done. Meltzer-Cassel also noted that, while they originally planned to put in an elevator, Primo Center wasn’t able to raise enough money to do so. 

In a follow-up interview, Radner said the building would be able to house up to 200 people. Because family sizes and ages of the kids varied, she said there was no way to say for certain how many families that would translate to, but she estimated it would be “about 65 families.” She also said the existing North Lawndale housing facilities will be closed, and their services will be consolidated at the new Austin facility.

Radner told the zoning board that the city of Chicago sends homeless families to several organizations, including Primo Center. In a follow-up interview, she explained that their goal is to get them into stable housing they can afford, put the school-age children into schools, help adults get jobs and provide daycare for younger kids. Mental health support is another important part of their approach. 

 “We have case managers who work with [families] on their needs and their lives’ needs, to help link them to schools, [which] are very important, obviously,” Radner said. “And daycare — we have our own early childhood program on site in Englewood, so we link them to that, but also in the community, we will link them to community resources.”

She said every family gets housing and other support. During the meeting, she noted that, while not every family is able to stay stable, they have a 91 percent success rate. 

Farzin Parang, chair of the zoning board, asked what would get their clients ejected, Radner said, as a general rule, their goal is to “let natural consequences happen.”

“We let the police take care of reports of violence or some kind of crime, but for minor infractions, we don’t kick people out of our shelter,” she said. 

During the meeting, activist George Blakemore questioned how much outreach the Primo Center did. Meltzer-Cassel responded that they reached out to Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward includes the building, and he suggested talking to the 4900 W. Washington Block Club and “didn’t recommend other community meetings.” The club gave the project a letter of support. And after they sent out required notices to the nearby properties, they didn’t receive any pushback, Meltzer-Cassel said.

“I only received one call; that was from a woman who was interested in establishing a daycare,” she said

Radner said now that the zoning board has cleared the project, the only thing left to do is actually renovate the building, which, she expects to be completed in the first quarter of 2020.

“We’re excited to be coming back to Austin,” she added. “We love the community.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...