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La Casa Norte, essential resource for homeless & youth

Fri, Jun 13, 2014

La Casa Norte in StreetWiseLa Casa Norte (LCN) began in the recession of 2002 as a crisis center for families at risk of homelessness and demand for its services has never ebbed, says founding executive director Sol Flores.

In its first 10 years, the Humboldt Park agency helped more than 20,000 homeless and at-risk individuals in more than 43 ZIP codes throughout the Chicago area. From a program staff of two and a budget of $200,000, it has grown to over 50 professionals and an operating budget of $4.2 million.

“The Great Recession of 2007 unfortunately disproportionately affected families,” Flores said. “We’ve seen an increase in family homelessness even more so during this last recession. Instabilization of families created a crisis of youth homelessness, for sure.”

In addition to some single parent families among the African-Americans and Latinos LaCasa Norte serves, Latinos were the “last in, first out,” in terms of both home buying and service industry jobs, which are often low-skill and low-paid, she said.

La Casa Norte common area

La Casa Norte common area

“Chicago is not an inexpensive place to live. Even in a poor neighborhood, rents are a challenge. Mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, all can create a direct impact on young people and children experiencing homelessness if their parents are somehow impacted.”

And while Latino families have a reputation for taking care of their own, “absolutely there is a limit to kinship networks,” Flores said. There are also elements of fear and shame in coming forward to receive help. And many families do not know where to turn, which is why La Casa Norte receives calls from all over city and suburbs for its Spanish language services.

La Casa Norte services now include emergency shelter beds as well as transitional and permanent supportive housing. Last year, it operated 50 units of scattered site housing for families.

In 2006, its Solid Ground program for up to 16 homeless males age 16-21 was the first bilingual male-intentional housing in the city; in 2009 it used stimulus money to open Casa Corazon, a drop-in center for homeless youth. In 2011 its scattered site housing for unaccompanied youth was the second program in the city to provide chronically homeless youth with permanent supportive housing.

Approval of Chicago’s Plan 2.0 against homelessness in August 2012 led to La Casa Norte being awarded funding last year for a 10-bed youth overnight shelter in Logan Square, a 30-bed shelter in Back of the Yards and five beds for pregnant or parenting teens in Little Village. La Casa Norte also won the Plan 2.0 contract for homeless youth drop-in centers next door to its Humboldt Park headquarters and at the Back of the Yards site.

Sol Flores, Executive Director of La Casa Norte, with the plan for a 55,000 square foot comprehensive facility.

Sol Flores, Executive Director of La Casa Norte, with the plan for a 55,000 square foot comprehensive facility.

Sol Flores, Executive Director of La Casa Norte, with the plan for a 55,000 square foot comprehensive facility. [/caption]In the next two years, Flores seeks to build a $17 million, 55,000-square foot facility next to LCN headquarters at 3533 W. North Ave. that would have 25 units of permanent housing for families, a drop-in center with showers, a nutrition center, a federally qualified health center and a digital employment lab. Since this stretch of North Avenue is a blighted, medically underserved food desert, she sees it as a potential anchor for the community. She has the schematics, the zoning, a request for tax increment finance money and $1.25 million committed.

Homeless youth from all over the city had congregated around Broadway and Belmont since the 1980s, and a youth group from a drop-in center there first attracted the attention Mayor Richard M. Daley at a budget hearing in 2009. They invited him to their art show and later met in his office. City-wide drop-in centers were one of their goals, as well as an affordable apartment building and programs to help them continue their education and get jobs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel absorbed the youth’s goals into his transition plan. After approval of Plan 2.0, he sought more money for the shelters and drop-in centers, which was accomplished by $2.5 million in savings from privatizing mobile outreach to Catholic Charities. (Please see StreetWise, April 21-27, 2014).

Simultaneously, as the 2002 Plan to End Homelessness was nearing its 10-year end, youth providers had become more sophisticated and more organized, Flores said. They talked to each other, realized the prevalence of the issue and the comparative lack of resources for youth and were ready when Mayor Emanuel asked the overall service provider community to come up with a new plan to end homelessness.

“It’s a slow-moving ship but the ship has definitely turned,” Flores said of Plan 2.0 and youth services.

She credits key people at the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) such as Deputy Commissioner John Pfeiffer, “such a huge win for us. He was a former provider (former executive director and CEO of Inspiration Corporation); he gets it, he understands policy as well as service delivery;” as well as Maura McCauley, director of homeless prevention services and Commissioner Evelyn Diaz. “She gets that in order for kids to do well, they need to have secure housing, make sure they are getting fed, have access to health care. She gets the broad scope. She hired these people, is accessible, articulate, a joy to work with.”

The youth provider community has continued to meet regularly as part of a City of Chicago Homeless Youth Task Force. Their focus is on giving youth similar experiences across all programs. One facet is harm reduction: meeting kids where they are in terms of eating disorders, cutting, gangs, sex selling, alcohol and drug use, talking through their goals and minimizing their risks. They are also trauma-informed, or cognizant of life issues that may trigger painful emotions – and thus “bad” behavior – in the kids.

“We also want to make sure no ‘adultism’ is happening,” Flores said. “The young people must have a say in what they want. This is their lives. We are the coaches, partners. They are truly doing the work. We are providing the resources and the access.”

An anecdote she likes to tell is that during this year’s polar vortex, the City and providers came up with 24-hour solutions for the shelters, which normally open at 9 p.m., so that youth did not have to be on the street. “The City actually paid for overtime staff so that we could bring in extra staff or have our staff stay over.”

But one estimate of the number of homeless youth is 1,500, which means even the increase to 114 beds is not enough shelter, she said. “And if you look at the trajectory of youth, they are living at home until they are 30, not moving out on their own, for the most part. What are longer-term solutions? We think there should be other types of housing programs the City should help provide as well as other rich programs around job training, employment, family unification.

By Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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