After months of pandemic-related delays, Englewood-based Primo Center held an Aug. 12 grand opening for a new, 210-bed transitional housing facility in a renovated apartment building in Austin, at 4952-58 W. Madison St. 

The facility, which is already mostly occupied, is for families experiencing homelessness and  includes on-site mental health services, social service offices, a daycare and a primary care clinic operated by the Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC).

Throughout the grand opening, Primo officials described the facility as something of a homecoming. The organization started in West Garfield Park and once operated a transitional housing facility in Austin. 

Primo Center was founded in 1978 by Bishop Quintin Primo, Jr., an Afro-Guanian immigrant. Originally known as the Urban Center of St. Barnabas, it works to ensure that 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.

In 2018, developer Sean Easton acquired the apartment building, with the intention of rehabbing it. He said he decided to lease it to Primo Center, because he felt that he could do more good if he worked with a nonprofit that was committed to the community.

While he and Primo expected the renovations to be complete before April 2020, the pandemic resulted in delays. Easton, who paid for the renovations, said that he appreciated Primo Center’s patience, as well as the work his contractors did in spite of the obstacles. 

LaTanya Gray, the chief programs officer at Primo Center, said that families started moving into the building in July 2020, as the nonprofit’s North Lawndale facilities closed. The building is currently about 75 percent occupied.

The building is mostly made up of 3-bedroom and 2-bedroom units, with a few 4-bedroom units. While large families get their own units, most families get one room and share a kitchen and a bathroom with two to three other families. 

Gray said that the families get cooking equipment, as well as gift cards to buy food until they start earning a living.  Most homeless shelters prepare meals for their clients, she said, but letting families cook for themselves makes them feel more secure and independent. 

Each unit includes air-conditioning and free wireless internet. Families can also take advantage of a laundry room and enclosed courtyard common area with a basketball hoop. The murals on the courtyard were painted by artist Rae Denise, who was chosen because she is a West Sider and a single mother.

The LCHC clinic provides primary care services for the clients, including free COVID-19 vaccines. Rev. James Brooks, who heads the health center’s community engagement, said that they plan to offer the services to Austin residents once they have more staff in place.

Antoinette Johnson, a parent educator at the on-site daycare, said that she works with parents and their children to address their needs, as well as to teach parents parenting skills and improve relationships between parents and children.

“When parents are in this situation, child development is something that [goes by the wayside],” Johnson said. 

Latoya Smith, an on-site clinical manager, said that families continue to get support services even after they move out.

Easton said that he loved how the facility turned out. 

“It’s a dream come true,” he reflected. “I’m extremely proud of it, and it turned out the way I envisioned it.”

Quintin Primo III, the son of Quintin Primo and co-chair of the center’s board of directors, said that his father “would just be absolutely, positively thrilled, and overjoyed that we’re connecting with the community.” Diane Primo, his wife and the board’s other co-chair, said that they were happy with the facility’s location.

“This is a wonderful neighborhood, because [Madison Street] actually has retail here, and you don’t usually walk in South and West side neighborhoods and see abundance here,” she said.

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...