A screenshot of a presentation showing the proposed 28-dorm transitional housing facility for men ages 18 to 24. | Screenshot

A West Side nonprofit is working to rehab and expand the former Lady of the Lourdes parish school building located at 1449 S. Keeler Ave. in North Lawndale into a 28-dorm transitional housing facility.

Cliff Nellis, the director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center (LCLC), 1530 S. Hamlin Ave., explained to the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals on Dec. 18 that the proposed facility will help young men ages 18 to 24 who are released from prison receive the support they need to need to get jobs and certifications.  

“Most of … our emerging adults are either living in crowded housing, couch-surfing among friends or girlfriends sometimes, or are just homeless, straight-up homeless,” he said. “And having a safe place to go home to at night, while they’re working toward meaningful employment, career options, makes all the difference in the world.”

The youth will come from the pool of the legal center’s existing clients. The organization will also move its offices into the new building, which, according to its staff, will make it easier for them to provide mental health support and other wraparound services for the residents. Their plan required a special use permit and several zoning variations, which the zoning board unanimously approved later during the meeting. 

The legal center was founded in 2010 by the Lawndale Community Church, 3827 W. Ogden Ave., in order to provide legal services for North Lawndale young people who have been arrested, as well as to provide support for them after they leave prison. The organization has worked with the Circuit Court of Cook County and nonprofit organizations to set up the Restorative Justice Community Court, which works with young people accused of nonviolent crimes, so that they take responsibility for their actions and “repair harm” their actions caused without having to go to prison.

Lady of the Lourdes parish was shut down by the Catholic Church of Chicago in 2004. Although Pentecostal Church of Holiness took over the parish church at 1444 S. Keeler Ave., the 1449 S. Keeler Ave. building, which was last used as a daycare, has been empty since then.

Nellis told the zoning board that it took several years for the legal center to raise the funds to acquire and rehabilitate the building.

Steve Friedland, the legal center’s attorney, said the organization plans to add a new wing to the north side of the building, as well new mechanical equipment on the roof, “to make it a modern building.” 

Both he and Nellis said that there aren’t many affordable housing options geared specifically toward youth. The Night Ministry youth homeless services organization operates the Phoenix Hall, a long-term housing facility for homeless students who attend the North Lawndale College Prep High School, 1616 S Spaulding Ave.

Nellis said that the youth will be living in the facility anywhere between two and four years.

During their stay, the youth will get mental health services, training in financial management and education in a range of life skills. The building will have floor supervisors and security, and youth will have a 10:00 p.m. curfew on weekdays and an 11:00 p.m. curfew on weekends.

“[Our staff is] also making sure [the residents] are demonstrating maturity and progress, that they’ll make the most of this opportunity,” Niellis added. “We know it works. We’ve seen young people thrive in this program.”

Richard Townsell, the executive director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, another nonprofit founded by the Lawndale Community Church, told the zoning board that his organization works to provide quality affordable housing in North Lawndale. He said he welcomes the project because it also provides affordable housing and because it would increase job opportunities in the community.

“This will be an awesome opportunity for the young men in our neighborhood,” he said. “Contractors are always saying – can we hire people from the neighborhood? Stable housing is a pillar, and we wholehearted believe that these young men need an opportunity. So we’re in support of it.”

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...