The Renaissance Living Room, a one-of-a-kind resource where Austin residents who are dealing with a mental health crisis or simply feel overwhelmed can come in to relax and get some help, has officially moved into a larger space at 4853 W. Chicago Ave., where the program can offer longer hours and more resources.
Like the original location at 5244 W. Chicago Ave., it looks more like an apartment than a doctor’s office, with warm lighting, plenty of couches, a bookshelf full of books and zines, plenty of tables and chairs, and even a rocking chair.
The new facility also has a kitchen, a lobby filled with house plants, and rooms where clients can sleep or blow off steam. The project was funded with an $85,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS), as well as private donations from the Northern Trust Corporation and the Chicago Board Options Exchange. The services are free and open to anyone who walks through the door.
During the grand opening held on Nov. 10, Austin elected officials and healthcare providers touted the Renaissance Living Room as a much-needed resource that they hoped would make the community healthier and help tackle the stigma around getting help with mental health issues.
The facility is currently open every day at 8 a.m. to midnight, but officials with Renaissance Social Services, which operates the Living Room, hope to be able to have it open 24/7. The one stumbling block is that they want to hire from Austin and West Garfield Park, which makes the process even longer than it would already be. Michael Banghart, the nonprofit’s executive director, said that the extra time and effort is worth it.
As before, interested residents can simply walk in or call and text ahead of time. If they want, they can talk to one of the recovery support specialists, typically people who have experienced mental health challenges in the past and are trained to help people in similar situations. They can also speak with an on-call therapist. Clients are not required to be vaccinated, but they do need to wear masks.
Renaissance Social Services, 2501 W. Washington Blvd., originally launched in 1997 to help low-income Chicagoans keep their homes. The nonprofit has since expanded into other services, including providing physical and mental health resources. Banghart previously said that they decided to open the Living Room in Austin because “a significant cluster” of their clients lived on the West Side and their research showed that Austin and West Garfield Park “had mental health needs, but not many mental health resources.”
The space at 5244 W. Chicago Ave., which it leased from the Westside Health Authority (WHA), was always meant to be temporary, until they found something larger. Rosie Dawson, WHA’s property manager, said that she thought that the then-vacant building at 4835 W. Chicago Avenue, a block west of her organizations’ health services building at 4800 W. Chicago Ave., would be a good fit for the Living Room and had WHA purchase it and lease it to the organization.
The state grant paid for the cost of renovating the space, and it will continue to cover staff salaries and other expenses until next summer. Banghart said that it will continue to receive annual funding from DHS going forward.
While the move was supposed to be completed in August, the city took longer to issue permits than expected. Dawson said that they tried to hire locally, giving an example of a bricklayer who “fell on hard times” and came looking for a job. They had a soft opening on Nov. 6.
Loren Phillips, the team lead for the Living Room, said that the new facility has a room where clients can nap and soundproof room for clients who either want a quiet space or a place to blow off steam without disturbing anyone else.
Since many clients come in from the street hungry, the Living Room has a kitchen. A lobby area by the door is used to screen clients who may need a “higher level of support” than the Living Room can provide. Officials will soon install a vending machine in the facility that will dispense Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses.
“There are a lot of folks standing on the corner and I’m sure Renaissance can help them, because they’ve been standing there for a long time,” said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the location of the new Living Room facility. “We shouldn’t look at people as if they’re not a person. Everybody is a somebody.”
State Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) said the new facility is “renewing the way we see mental health. I don’t know anyone here who can’t use [a visit to the Living Room].”
Morris Reed, WHA’s CEO, said that the Living Room would complement the Austin Health Center and other services at 4800 W. Chicago Ave.
“You’re going to see a renewed spirit in the air,” Reed said. “We have faith that our community will change. We will be better and we will all prosper.”
For more information about the Renaissance Living Room, visit renaissancelivingroom.org.