The Night Ministry, a West Town-based nonprofit that helps homeless youth and adults, has been quietly expanding its presence in North Lawndale over the past five years.
In September 2018, it opened the Phoenix Hall, a transitional housing facility for students attending North Lawndale College Prep (NLCP) high school, 1615 S. Christiana Ave., inside what was previously a two-flat at 1922 S. Avers Ave.
Since then, the facility’s mission has expanded to accepting teens and young adults from across the community. They also started working with area landlords, renting a pair of apartments where they could place clients that don’t need as much support. Each apartment has two rooms, so it can house two clients at a time.
The Night Ministry officials said that they changed the model in response to the demand on the ground, but they still provide shelter and support services for the youth to help them find jobs and housing.
While Night Ministry currently doesn’t have a plan to expand any further, they continue to build relationships with North Lawndale landlords and nonprofits to help ensure that their clients are able to stay in the community once they leave the program and to make sure more young people know their program is available.
The Phoenix Hall came about because NLCP teachers noticed around 50 to 70 students either didn’t have a roof over their heads, slept on friends’ couches or were on the verge of getting kicked out. They worked with the Old. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, 700 W. Adams St, and the Night Ministry to provide a place that would be a stepping stone toward students getting their own housing. When it opened, the house could accommodate up to eight students.
In May 2019, the Night Ministry revamped the arrangement. The newly minted Pathways Transitional Living program still accepts NLCP students, but the eligibility opened to all area young people ages 16 to 23.
Jenny Merritt, the Night Ministry’s community engagement manager, said that they first opened the opportunity to other North Lawndale high schools before expanding to youth who have either graduated or dropped out of school.
“We really wanted this program to be connected to the community and we saw that a lot of students were graduating, and they didn’t have independent housing set up and they weren’t ready to live on their own,” she said.
Four beds at the Phoenix House are now reserved for community residents who are referred to by local schools and nonprofits such as the Firehouse Art Center and the Lawndale Community Health Center. The other four are reserved for eligible youth who are applying for housing with the City of Chicago and want to stay in the community.
Austin Weekly News recently got a tour of the Phoenix Hall. The first floor contains Night Ministry staff offices and common spaces, including a kitchen, a lounge and a laundry room. There is another recreational space in the basement and a computer lab that fell into disuse during the pandemic. The second floor is a living area, with eight small rooms and shared bathrooms.
Henry Merrill, the Pathways program supervisor, said that the clients have to keep their room clean and do chores around the house. The staff cooks meals, but clients can buy their own food. Merrill said that the youth get a chance to practice life skills, such as cooking their own meals or making their own budgets.
The clients also get on-site services provided by staff and local nonprofits. Cara Ugolino, the program case manager, said that they get therapy and assistance with employment, education and finding permanent housing. The clients living in apartments get similar services, and they are able to go to Phoenix Hall to do laundry or get food.
Ugolino said that youth who start out at the house can move up to the apartment if they show that they’ve developed the skills necessary to live more independently.
Merrill said that they can stay in the program for up to two years, but an average stay is eight to nine months. Allison McCann Stevenson, the Night Ministry’s assistant director of long-term residential services, said that once the youth leave the program, the staff checks with them within the first 90 days, quarterly and bi-annually until they are 27 years old to see if they need any help.
Ayana Bufford is a NLCP junior who has been living in the Phoenix Hall for a month. She said that her home situation made it difficult for her to get to school. She added that she was grateful for the support she got when she moved in and that the staff made it a smooth transition.
“I’m able to go to school, thanks to what they did for me,” she said.
While Merritt said that Night Ministry currently has no plans to expand the Pathways program, she didn’t rule out future expansion plans. In the meantime, they are building connections with “small, local landlords,” who help them place clients in permanent housing when they leave the program.
McCann Stevenson said that they are always looking for volunteers
“We’re looking for community members who would like to partner with the Night Ministry to provide career and job readiness,” she said.