In the city of Chicago, there are over 11,000 youth experiencing homelessness (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2018) and about 40% of those youth identify as LGBTQ (True Colors Fund, 2018). Many of them have experienced some form of trauma like rejection from their families, victimized by predators or bullies, and/or made outcasts by their communities. LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at 3x the rate of heterosexual counterparts (The Trevor Project, 2018). At La Casa Norte we help create a safe space, an autonomous setting created for individuals who feel marginalized to come together and feel secure being themselves.
What’s most striking was our holistic approach, through our policies all the way to our case managers’ individual approaches. During our initial hiring process, we ask all applicants if they are comfortable working with LGBT individuals, as we are aware that there is a 120% higher risk of LGBT youth reporting homelessness (Chapin Hall, 2017). During orientation, we review our nondiscriminatory policy with each staff member. La Casa Norte case managers attend biweekly meetings where they are trained on various topics, including LGBT, Trans, and PrEP /PEP 101. We share this information with our clients through group workshops facilitated by staff or community partners.
June is Pride Month, so we’ve asked our staff what they do to create a safe space for our LGBTQ youth—not just during this time, but year-round.
“Everyone should have a safe space to feel free to be who they are and want to be without fear of being judged or injured. So I meet with clients without holding any judgment.”
– Brandi, Youth Empowerment Specialist
“When it’s a participant’s first time accessing our Drop-in Center, during their intake process, I talk about how this is a free space: ‘There will be lots of people who are not like you but are on a similar journey. So use this as an experience to grow.’ Sometimes it’s their first time ever meeting a transgendered individual who is openly expressing their identity so I let them know just as it is okay to be you, you allow others that same privilege.”
– Angelina, Drop-in Specialist
“It’s an ongoing process in how you engage with individuals, when housing clients who identify as LGBTQ, especially visibly queer folks like transwomen, I ask what communities do you feel save moving into and which communities don’t you feel are very welcoming? In addition, housing clients in a home they call their own allows them, sometimes for the first time, to create their own safe space. Something they may have never experienced growing up.”
– Charlie, Permanent Supportive Housing Case Manager
“It is not just saying no discrimination or judgment, it goes deeper than that. It’s being a strong ally who educates themselves to fight against oppression and bringing that knowledge to work. It’s also offering support and active listening to our LGBT clients and their needs. This includes not assuming their gender identities or sexual orientation and respecting those labels.”
– Kristen, Housing Advocate
These thoughtful responses demonstrate our staff’s commitment to harm reduction and meeting clients where they are, emotionally and physically. We each strive to achieve the organization’s vision of a world where all people have dignity, communities thrive and everyone belongs.
This year we will also be walking alongside Bank of America at Chicago Pride Parade. Make sure to keep an eye out for us if you plan on attending!
An estimated 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we have highlighted our Palante Scattered Site Supportive Housing Program, which provides permanent supportive housing for families and chronically homeless youth.
Program Coordinator, Azalea Acuña, discusses the issues of mental health today:
Mental Health is sometimes considered “extra” when you’re confronting homelessness. Focusing on therapy, medication, and doctor’s appointments is difficult when you don’t know where you’re sleeping. More so, the beginning steps of finding those resources can’t take place until basic needs are met. I personally have a hard time scheduling appointments and prioritizing my health and I’m a working professional…the expectation that a young person would be able to do it is unreasonable. There are also stereotypes that youth are not aware of their mental health issues, although they very much are, and finding resources that understand their specific needs and how it impacts their development is yet another challenge.
That’s why I appreciate that we prioritize partnering with mental health service providers whether at home or on-site. For example, our therapist visits our Casa Corazon Drop-in Centers so youth don’t have to schedule an appointment, follow-up, etc. They are already in the space and it alleviates a lot of those challenges, including transportation costs. In Palante, we have a home visit program which means we bring those resources to them—a therapist will literally host check-ins at their home. Our clients are also partnered with a case manager so it’s a holistic approach—not just case management or mental health needs because it’s not one or the other and we see the results that this partnership brings.
Tiffany Chic, Palante Case Manager, shares her experience with a client and the impact of this holistic approach:
“One of my clients who was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and struggles with substance use has shown significant change through the engagement of case management and therapy. Prior to this, she was unable to maintain a job because of her mental health and physical health; with consistent engagement, she’s working two jobs and has been more motivated to find and schedule doctor’s appointments. You truly have to tackle things one by one.”
This process does not happen overnight, though, says Azalea. It takes a long time to engage someone and chances are, our clients have been referred to other service providers prior to coming to La Casa Norte and as much as we would love to say we’re great, not all clients have had a high quality of care and that creates a challenge as we try to build relationships with our clients. We take a different kind of approach—working with young people and families is our thing so we know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes our clients will cancel and our response is “I can see you another time!” to demonstrate flexibility. We’re constantly engaging—calling, texting, reaching out until they decide they do want access to services or they opt out of the mental health programs, but at that time it’s their decision and they know we’ll be here when they need us. Through our client centered harm reduction model we meet clients where they are and sometimes they are not ready to receive services but through ongoing communication, we develop trust and they learn that we’re not just offering services but that we care.
The best part is when we no longer have to make the initial calls because clients are reaching out to us to share updates—when we see the tables turn, we know there has been progress.
This fall we are excited to open our new community center in Humboldt Park. Through this facility, we plan to operate 25-units of supportive housing in addition to a federally qualified health center, a drop-in and anti-violence program for youth who are homeless, technology and job readiness training, nutrition services, and a food pantry for youth and families confronting homelessness. We look forward to having you join us in these new endeavors and expanded services as our impact in the community cannot happen without the help of invested neighbors like yourself.
April is National Volunteer Month, a whole month dedicated to celebrating and recognizing all of the hard work our volunteers do to help end homelessness in our communities. We interviewed one of our volunteers, Meghan Janotka. She has been helping advance our mission to end homelessness for youth and families since November 2017 by volunteering at one of the youth shelters in Logan Square and attending various one-day volunteer events.
LCN: Meghan, can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
Meghan: “Hello! My name is Meghan Janotka and I am originally from Columbus, OH although I am proud to have called Chicago home for the past (almost) seven years. I love checking out brunch and pizza places all across this great city, especially my favorite joint Pequod’s. My favorite hobbies include reading and playing euchre. I have also enjoyed volunteering and supporting La Casa Norte (LCN) over the past two years.”
LCN: How did you hear about La Casa Norte and the volunteer program?
Meghan: “I first heard about La Casa Norte via the Annual Gala, which I was fortunate enough to attend through my company’s sponsorship. As with most people, I was particularly captivated by Sol Flores and her incredible passion toward ending homelessness and her leadership. I instantly thought ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ and wanted to get more involved. After learning more about La Casa Norte’s housing programs and volunteer opportunities, I knew that I would have the flexibility to partake in the variety of short-and-long term opportunities that have a real impact on the LCN clients while assisting the staff.”
“It’s important to note that La Casa Norte and its incredible staff provides so much more than simply a roof over a head.”
LCN: What did you do as a volunteer?
Meghan: “I chose to become a regular volunteer on Tuesday evenings at the Emergency Youth Shelter in Logan Square. I have also attended various one-day events like the Hunger Walk and their Paint Party. As a volunteer at the Emergency Youth Shelter, I prepared and served meals for the 18-24 coeds that would spend the nights on Tuesdays. I would also spend time with the youth over the meal, where I was able to connect with them on a personal level.”
LCN: What was your most memorable moment as a volunteer?
Meghan: “It’s important to note that La Casa Norte and its incredible staff provides so much more than simply a roof over a head. The team works individually with the youth to construct a viable action plan to put them on the road to self-sufficiency. My most memorable moment came after I spent some time working with a particular youth who was preparing for a local job fair. We talked about how to convey confidence in his abilities and experience to a recruiter. When I went back the following week, he proudly informed me he received an offer on the spot.”
LCN: How did the service with LCN impact your life?
Meghan: “Volunteering with La Casa Norte has been an incredible experience. As a Lakeview resident who works in the Loop, it has put me out of my comfort zone but also kept me grounded. Through LCN, I have realized whether someone lives on the North, West or Southside, we are all residents of Chicago. We should promote and take pride in an individual’s success since it’s a reflection of our entire community. I am beyond grateful to continue to be engaged with La Casa Norte and look forward to crossing the Chicago Marathon finish line as an LCN charity runner this October!”
Thank you, Meghan, for your commitment to serving youth and families confronting homelessness. Your service and dedication to our mission helps support our vision of a world where all people have dignity, communities thrive, and everyone belongs.
*Since this interview Meghan has also become a member of our young professionals’ auxiliary board, Next Generation Board. Congrats Meghan and thank you for all you do in the community and at LCN!
In honor of Women’s History Month, La Casa Norte officially launched Project Period! This initiative, and in-kind drive, aims to break the stigma of menstruation and raise awareness around the needs of women confronting homelessness differing from men. Throughout March, we have been working with organizations across Chicago to gather feminine hygiene products for the women in our programs; but before we proceed, let’s discuss the impacts of a monthly menstrual cycle on women confronting homelessness.
So exactly how much does it cost to have a period?
According to Huffington Post, “On average, a woman has her period from three to seven days and the average woman menstruates from age 13 until age 51. That means the average woman endures some 456 total periods over 38 years, or roughly 2,280 days with her period — 6.25 years of her life.”
To put it in perspective, we gathered the average prices of feminine hygiene products at your local store today:
That brings us to an average of $35 NOT considering the cost of underwear and the potential for leakage, which often cause permanent stain. On average, a pair of underwear costs $5, which means in one lifetime, a woman will spend a minimum of $18,240 on her period.
Woman across the country can vouch that this monthly routine is often a challenge. Now, imagine battling your cycle while confronting homelessness, having to choose between your next meal or bleeding through your clothing, not having access to pain medicine when those cramps strike, having irregular access to bathrooms and showers, a limited wardrobe…do you see where we’re going with this? In 2016, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that 40% of the homeless population were women, 78% over the age of 18—that’s a vast amount of homeless women who menstruate with little to no access to needed items.
We asked case managers from our Casa Corazon program—our Homeless Youth Outreach and Engagement Initiative—to express the importance of Project Period:
“So our young women don’t utilize other unsafe/unhealthy methods, such as using toilet paper from public restrooms.”
It’s suggested to change tampons every four hours, and never keep them in for more than eight hours—oftentimes, women keep them in past the suggested timeframe as a means to save money.
“Having these items ensure our young women don’t need to steal them from stores…So our young women aren’t bleeding everywhere…To provide dignity, access to the tools to take care of themselves, and to have a sense of cleanliness and have a basic need met in their life.”
With help from The Chicago Period Project and Project Bleeding Love—two local organizations working toward ensuring homeless women experience their periods with dignity— we came together on International Women’s Day and created over 100 kits for the women in our programs!
As we wrap up March and Women’s History Month, the efforts to provide feminine hygiene products does not end—after all, we don’t only get our period in March! We still need YOUR help! Whether you are interested in hosting an in-person drive, an online drive through our Amazon Wish List, would like to volunteer and package kits, or have another idea, we welcome your support! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved today!
Happy belated Valentine’s Day from La Casa Norte! As we continue to celebrate our 15th year of serving and empowering youth and families who are confronting homelessness, we can’t help but be thankful for all we have accomplished in 2017 and are excited to continue advancing our mission with YOUR support!
Here are 15 ways you can share the love and get involved with La Casa Norte this year:
I want to invite you into a part of my life, to show you the warmth of a home even without the four walls and a roof. So let’s grab a seat at the table, even one that didn’t always provide food.
My name is Markaysa Royelle Lipscomb Jackman Miller. 15 years ago, I was six years old, living in Nebraska, I liked to watch the TV show, Charmed, because the characters on the show had special powers and could do whatever they wanted, they weren’t stuck in this box of being a regular human being. I loved eating crab legs and I just wanted to be happy and have stability – I wanted a support system.
I’ve wanted stability and support for a very long time. My family moved around a lot, because my parents often couldn’t pay rent. They were alcoholics and couldn’t maintain jobs. We lived in four different apartments and when I was in the fifth grade, we even had to live in a hotel for a year. I would fake pretend that I enjoyed living in a hotel, but I didn’t, I wasn’t able to ask friends to come over and I was embarrassed.
We would get new housing, where I’d begin to feel secure and then we would have to move again. I went to six different schools from kindergarten to 8th grade and in the process, we moved to Minnesota. I got used to moving and in fact, got good at moving. It became easier for me not to have or form lasting relationships at school or with neighborhood kids. Everyone became an “associate”, because I knew they would not become lifelong friends. It was easy to leave people and lose connections.
I wasn’t always able to find teachers that I liked and in 7th grade, I was told that I had ADHD. I didn’t want to use this as a crutch or an excuse and realized I had to work harder in certain areas.
While I was close to my stepdad as a child, our relationship changed when I went to high school. I was nervous and scared because of changes like puberty, it was an awkward time. At first, I stuck to myself, but then began to build my own support system at school. I barely felt safe and was abused. He belittled my personality, disowned me, and made comments like…”she’s not even my daughter” I used to have his last name but I changed it when I was 15.
Eventually, he kicked me out of the house. So I first became homeless when I was 17 years old, just 4 months shy of my high school graduation. So the moving around continued, this time in friends’ homes and then with roommates. But I never felt like it was quite home. I managed to still graduate from high school and get quality jobs where I made advancements. I had started college in Minnesota, but had to drop out because of homelessness. After certain personal downfalls, I was reduced to living in a car during the winter, on and off for almost 2 months. It was cold and lonely. Sometimes I stayed with a boyfriend who was also dealing with unstable housing. I felt embarrassed, felt like I was a burden, and was annoyed with myself, constantly having to ask people if I could stay with them.
When I was 19 years old, I wanted to end everything. I have been dealing with depression as long as I can remember. I was ready to die. I attempted suicide and was hospitalized. I hate failing at anything, but I’m glad that I failed at suicide. It was my greatest failure. I realized I wanted to live.
In 2016, I moved to Chicago to try and reunite with extended family members, but I didn’t feel safe with them either and was eventually kicked out. I’ve had people tell me, you’re so pretty, why are you homeless? You could just hook up with someone. And while I do want a quality relationship, I don’t want to have to put my mind and body out there in exchange for a safe place to sleep.
I was scared to go to a shelter, it felt weird at first. I visited a couple of different places and I didn’t feel safe. After searching for resources, someone told me about La Casa Norte, and I showed up at the Southside drop in center in August of 2016. I arrived after the program had closed, but the staff still let me in for the night. It was my first time in a shelter. I felt embarrassed and was disappointed in myself. I remember thinking, I know I’m better than this I shouldn’t be in this situation. While living in a shelter, was a different and uncomfortable experience, I knew, this was still the best situation for me.
Some of the staff members I met at La Casa Norte I got along with and some I did not. While everyone is trying to help in their own way, the journey that I have been on has been intensely personal. I started asking questions, like, how long will it take me to get housed, how do I get resources? What do I have to do and where do I go?
I stayed at La Casa Norte’s Southside emergency shelter on and off until December 2016. When I wasn’t staying at the shelter, I slept in abandoned homes with a group of friends. Some of the abandoned apartments still had electricity, yet none had working toilets. We ate canned foods, but it was cold and always difficult.
While I got accustomed to living in an emergency shelter, I was eventually accepted to a transitional housing program.
It was a breath of fresh air to finally live in my own apartment. Before it felt like I was walking barefoot trying to take control of my life …and now I finally had a pair of shoes. In June of 2017, I applied and was accepted into La Casa Norte’s Youth in College program. The program gives youth a chance to make their education a focus and a priority.
My education has always been important to me and now I can truly make it a priority. This makes me feel like I’m in complete control of my life. Today I am 21 years old and I attend Kennedy King College. I have a 4.0 GPA, it’s a lot of work, but so worth it, I never thought I could achieve this. I am majoring in Psychology today and eventually want to be a midwife with my own practice. I want to work with pregnant women. I admire mothers so much, they have such an amazing job.
I want to be the person that can help a mother going through a difficult time. What if I could be the person that could teach a mother something new that would make her act differently in raising her children? I have a part-time job working with kids in an after-school program. I see my purpose in the children I work with every day, the lives of Aaliyah, Madison, Victor and Lamar. If I never had a reason to wake up, they are definitely a reason to never give up.
The hardest obstacles that I’ve had to overcome in life was blaming myself for the people in my life either leaving or being distant from me, my mom’s drinking, my dad’s leaving, being homeless, being depressed and hating my life.
Family to me is defined as the people who know you… flaws and scars, and helps you when you’re down, motivates you to get back up and never leaves you behind. The people who know you, the good bad and ugly, yet still loves and value you. They look forward to your waking up in the morning and you always know they are there. Forever people.
I’ve learned they don’t always share the same bloodline. I’m grateful because I have been blessed with some amazing human beings in my life that I can now call family. Some even at La Casa Norte.
To me, Under One Roof, means having a stable Home with four walls and you can feel safe and don’t have to worry about being judged. You can relieve all your stress and burdens and be free, you can be you.
Today, I surround myself with empowering words and I speak up. I was scared to share before, like no one else would understand me. I realized I’m not the only one going through depression. So I started asking for help, talking to others who are also going through this and began therapy. I began to realize that even if I didn’t love myself, I could find ways to love life and eventually, I have begun to love myself.
In 15 years, I will be 36 years old and happy that I was able to reach that age and feel accomplished. I would hope that young people wouldn’t be scared, that they could feel safe and be themselves. I would hope that young people could stop hating themselves and the world, and be willing to being the change in the world. Because this too shall pass.
I love food. My office is right next to our drop-in center’s kitchen, and I experience meal envy multiple times per week when I smell my colleagues cooking seasoned chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes for the youth, or catch a glimpse of a beautiful plate of lasagna with garlic bread in a youth’s hand as they walk down the hall. Our youth eat well when they’re with us – and they should. For some of them, this is the only meal they will eat that day.
In 2016, La Casa Norte served over 35,000 meals to youth and families experiencing homelessness. Our meals are hot, filling, and nutritionally balanced. We try to cook healthy comfort food; to use meals to re-create a feeling of home for our clients.
One reason we can pull off these meals on a nonprofit budget is because of our partnership with organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD). Every week since 2008, we’ve placed orders with their team for free or heavily discounted boxes of milk, eggs, chicken, fresh fruits and vegetables, bread and snacks.
Every year, the GCFD invites us to participate in an enormous hunger awareness event called the Annual Hunger Walk — and we show up in force! This year’s Hunger Walk is taking place on September 16th—during Hunger Action Month—and we’re ecstatic over 100 individuals have chosen to support us!
We unload buses of youth and family clients, staff members, board members, volunteers, friends, and family, and walk a three miles to honor the fight to end hunger in Cook County. In return for our involvement, GCFD credits us $12 per walker, which amounts to an additional 50 pounds of fresh, nutritious food.
It’s a privilege to be able to bring awareness to the issue of hunger through events like the Hunger Walk. Recently, a study by Sinai Health System revealed that more than 46% of individuals living in Humboldt Park are facing food insecurity. That means that almost half of our neighbors in our flagship community don’t always know how to provide filling meals for the people they love.
At La Casa Norte, we know that we’re part of the fight to change this statistic and lift our community up. We serve meals and provide nutrition and health education – but we also advocate, walk, raise money and raise awareness. Ending hunger is a huge issue, and it’s essential we join together #UnderOneRoof with the larger community to move the needle on it.
A couple weeks back, I asked a client what hunger was like. His answer was very simple. He told me, “You don’t want to go hungry. When you don’t eat, you don’t feel well. It’s hard to do anything. Having food to eat – it’s a blessing.”
Dear Family & Friends,
Twelve years ago, during the 29th year of our relationship, Gregory and I received the diagnosis of his having Dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s Disease. Knowing that the road ahead would be a difficult one, we recommitted our love to each other saying, “Now that we know what we are dealing with, I love you…MORE THAN EVER.” In the typical marriage vows, the line… “Until death do we part” is spoken…but with a true love, even death does not end the love… the love lasts FOREVER.
To this day, since Gregory died on October 4th, in the 41st year of our committed relationship, I find that I think of him ALL the time, speak OF him and TO him as if he still was present (if only in spirit) continue to use “WE” when talking about things, and continue to love him…MORE THAN EVER. Yes there is continued grief and sorrow in the death of a best friend, confidant, lover, soul mate…but believe me when I say that today the JOY far outweighs the sorrow.
Gregory and I have been involved with La Casa Norte almost since its inception. We have, like many of you, made donations and attended galas. I have included m handcrafted jewelry and photographs and Gregory has included his Design consulting, in La Casa Norte’s silent auctions. When Gregory Maire Architect Ltd closed its doors a year after Gregory’s diagnosis; we gave office chairs, desks, lamps and kitchen items to help La Casa norte’s Solid Ground Residence which supports youth coming out of abusive homes, drugs, gangs, and prison.
Over time, a lot of clothing donations have been made to La Casa Norte…as I outgrew my clothing…and as Gregory…always the tall thin one…maintained his wardrobe which needed to reflect his profession of high-end architect and interior designer. Both Gregory and I imagined with joy, the vision of a young person, coming to the “closet” at La Casa Norte to find a suit for an upcoming interview, only to discover one of Gregory’s donated suits by Armani, Ferragamo, or Gucci waiting for them.
Many years ago, much like people talk about what they would do if they won the lottery, Gregory and I talked about wishing we could help others. We talked about how this would look and decided that probably the best way to help was through supporting young people who were seeking to better themselves through an education…but who could not afford to do so. Last year, when Gregory and I re-visited our wills and re-evaluated our finances and investments, we realized that NOW THAT WE ARE OLD, we are in the position of doing good for others, to pay forward our own good fortune.
I called Sol Flores, Executive Director of La Casa norte, and longtime friend, and told her about our decision to make a large bequest in our will to La Casa Norte for the purpose of providing funds for educational support to the youth with whom they work. That call was the catalyst for the MORE THAN EVER EDUCATION FUND and this inaugural luncheon. Also, with the help of a portion of Gregory’s life insurance, I am pleased that we are able to begin providing scholarships and other forms of assistance NOW and do not have to wait for the bequest to take effect upon my death. Gregory and I will continue to support the current scholarships given today, over the next three years to make sure that the youth beginning their studies will be able to see them through to their completion while the MTE Education Fund continues to grow and establish itself.
I am so pleased that La Casa Norte will help us fulfill this dreams of ours through their excellent not-for-profit administration, their wonderful “track record,” their wide reach in the communities they serve in the Greater Chicago Area, and their amazing support programs. They have a great ability and the resources to not only vet deserving youth for inclusion in the benefits of the MTE EdFund but also to provide support to help insure student success through providing study skill help, group social skills support, emotional counseling, life skills training, and all those things that go into helping to create success for our future citizens and their families. We LOVE everything about La Casa Norte!
One thought on using the term “homeless youth.” The label serves its purpose in letting us identify the situation in which these young people find themselves. They do not always know where they will spend the night. They may not know when their next meal will be. THey work helping to support their families as well as trying to continue their education. They look to the future for an improved place in life…but these youth are so much MORE than just “homeless.” I would not want the label homeless to classify them and then for us to move on. Like Gregory, who was NOT a VICTIM of Alzheimer’s Disease but rather a HERO…these young people are not VICTIMS of homelessness, which is only one descriptor of who they really are, but they are amazing HEROS and examples of success as well!
We are pleased that in memory of Gregory and how he approached life in his love, kind, graceful, compassionate, intelligent, humorous way…and in honor of my involvement…AND MOST IMPORTANTLY WITH YOUR SUPPORT, the MORE THAN EVER EDUCATION FUND has the potential to create continuing education opportunities and experiences for the youth of La Casa Norte for years to come.
The inaugural event today, wears Gregory and my faces. The MORE THAN EVER EDUCATION FUND is described as “established by Gregory L. Maire and Michael A. Horvich.” Over time it is my wish that Gregory and my names disappear and the DEEDS of the fund…and its future…speak to Gregory’s and my legacy. In the future, with support from you and the support of individuals like you; the business community, the religious community, and the social services community…the great potential available to La Casa Norte to provide educational opportunities to youth confronting homelessness will continue.
Thank you so much for being here today and for your support.
Thank you Sol, for those very kind words. And congratulations again, Barbara Bowman, I am very honored to share this award with you today.
Receiving this award has given me the opportunity to reflect on the work that I have been involved in for the past 24 years, and the journey that set the stage for La Casa Norte. This moment of reflection took me back to when I was 20 years old, a draftee in Vietnam in a small medical unit. Our work was not only to treat soldiers, but also the wounded Vietnamese children and adults. Witnessing the trauma that people had to endure, is something that never disappears. I found myself wanting to do more for the people of Vietnam, but the circumstances would not allow it. I didn’t know what to do, or how to respond to it, other than protest and to numb the images. Re-entering society, I was expected to be the same, as if nothing had happened. I did not return home the same young man. Healing was a slow process and once the fog of war lifted, I was able to make meaning of my experience. My par-a-dime had shifted. I began to look more critically at the world around me. I began to question the influences of government policies, and the impact of injustice, and violence on people’s lives.
In 1990, I had the opportunity to travel with a delegation to Central America, to learn more about the genocide occurring in Guatemala. We were introduced to an orphanage that was located in the highlands, where the majority of violence, due to the civil war was taking place. The orphanage was established to care for the indigenous children, who were being orphaned by the war. The images of war returned, but I was no longer a 20 year old draftee limited by the circumstances. I had an opportunity to do something.
My work began by bringing delegations down to learn about the situation in Guatemala, and do various infrastructure projects. After discussions with the director, about how we could make a deeper impact on the lives of the children, we decided to establish an education fund. This fund was supported by people in Chicago, and provided opportunities for the children to build careers, and break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families. These indigenous children who were the recipients of structural racism, and violence, became chefs, nurses, teachers, and mechanics.
The commonalities of poverty and violence that I experienced in Vietnam and Guatemala were also present here in the streets of Chicago. Volunteering with my friend Peter McQueen in emergency shelters, we met young people with traumatic histories experiencing homelessness. We found that there were limited options for youth to get the housing resources, and supportive services they would need to break the cycle of poverty. So Peter and I decided to do something….At the time we had little more than a strong belief, that we could tell an honest and compelling story, that people could get behind, and be moved to action. We began to look for a building and approached the bank for a loan. I remember the bank officer, asking me for a business plan to approve the loan…one that I didn’t have. I decided, we needed more than just a business plan…we needed a justice plan…, detailing why the bank and others needed to do this in the community, and what the return on investment would be, for putting justice into action.
I took the chance, and mortgaged my family’s home, borrowed the money to purchase our first building, and launched La Casa Norte…I did this without knowing exactly how the future would look, but I knew it was the just, and right thing to do.
We had the confidence that we could be successful, that taking these risks would pay off because we believed that these young people were worth it…because we believed and know that children should have the opportunity to grow up into their best selves, to fully live their dreams. We began to build our infrastructure, by telling a compelling story, inviting others to participate, and bringing awareness to the issue of youth homelessness in the region. It was a daunting task…but we approached it, little by little, every day, and plugged along for years, never once giving up. Because this was something that I knew we had to do, that La Casa Norte would be justice.
We opened our doors on July 1, 2002, and as I stand here today, 13 years later, I’m incredibly proud of our accomplishments, that we have built an expansive system of housing and services across the city, meeting the needs of youth and families that are experiencing homelessness…. that our work has touched over 25,000 individuals.
A few weeks ago, I met two young people participating in our youth in college program. Caprice and Jaqwez both became homeless at the age of 17, for different reasons. Caprice, a young woman was shy, but steady as she related her journey about escaping abuse, to now being a junior in college. Jaqwez’s smile lit up the room, as he shared his story about how La Casa Norte became the home, and the “parents” that he never had, but always wanted. Hearing these youth tell their stories, makes me feel like we did a good job, that we did the right thing…that this was justice.
I am just as excited about what the next 13 years holds for La Casa Norte, as we propel forward, partnering with our clients, as they courageously work to move out of homelessness and poverty, and become their best possible selves. There was a collective lift of strength, faith and passion to start La Casa Norte ….of people believing and knowing that we could and should do this…
For us….who have the privilege of being here today, there is so much more work to be done. I think about the individuals, families, single mothers, and children living in the margins, who are always…always the first target of budget crisis. These are very critical times and it demands our collective attention.
So today, I am grateful and thank UNICEF for the honor, and I accept this UNICEF Humanitarian Award, on behalf of our amazing board, staff, my family, and the thousands of individuals that have allowed us to walk, hand in hand with them….to join them on their very human journey, of surviving and thriving.
This year, we celebrated La Casa Norte’s 13th Annual Gala celebration and our commitment to youth and families confronting homelessness. This year’s gala theme was Dig In For Dignity – The Foundation Project as we prepare to break ground on our most exciting housing project yet.
For the last 13 years, La Casa Norte has been living our vision…a world where all people have dignity, communities thrive and everyone belongs. Last year, we served 4,500 people through a variety of housing and social service programs. These programs take place at 5 sites across the city and within the homes of youth and families who are no longer homeless as a result of our work. Several of our facilities operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, partnering with our clients so that they can regain dignity and self-worth, while tapping into their own resiliency and potential.
-La Casa Norte housed over 1,000 households, getting people off the streets, out of shelters and preventing homelessness from occurring in the first place.
-We provided nearly 8,000 nights of emergency shelter.
-We served almost 35,000 meals to youth in our shelters.
This past spring we partnered with other local organizations to launch the 750 club, to house youth who are homeless and identify as LGBTQ. These apartments are privately funded by individuals who believe that no one should be on the streets because of who they choose to love.
We also joined a coalition of organizations working to end homelessness among veteran’s in Chicago and we are committed to being another major city that ends this humiliation in our country and fully honors our brave service members.
This summer, we opened a new site and expanded our emergency shelter program to serve pregnant and parenting girls ages 18-24 years old with the capacity to serve youth clients, babies, and toddlers.
One of our very first clients in that program was a young woman with a one-year old and a three-year old, all who slept in our shelter. I really need you to picture that. I want to know if that sits well with you? I need to know that it bothers you. And what you’re willing to do about it?
Our supporters have asked us to do more. The community has asked us to do more. Our clients have asked us to do more. And we have responded. People who are committed to ending homelessness have trusted us with their time and treasure. Year after year, we have delivered.
Two years ago, we announced a major expansion of our emergency shelter system across the city. Last year we announced the launch of our innovative Youth In College Program. This year, we are announcing The Foundation Project and will break ground next year.
Why is the Foundation project so important? Because the statistics continue to be so staggering:
-Nationally, the US has reached a historic high with almost 2.5 million children, or 1 out of every 30 children experiencing homelessness.
-Children under 18 make up one-third of individuals in the shelter system in Chicago.
So instead of giving away one-way bus tickets, or warehousing them in jails, or litigating about whether or not it’s a crime to sleep on a train or in a park, let’s instead focus on investing in people. Let’s maximize their human potential and realize why this project is so important.
The Foundation Project will provide critical housing, a nutrition center with hot meals, and a food pantry for people right here in Chicago who would ordinarily go hungry. We will offer a medical health center for the sick, an employment and training center for those yearning to work, and showers for those who do not have the privilege of taking something such a luxury for granted.
Let me ask you. What are you passionate about? What enrages you? What are the things so much bigger than you, bigger than the person sitting in your seat, which moves you to take action? The work we do at La Casa Norte is very up close and personal – because it’s about people’s lives. We put our whole selves and entire hearts into this work. So I want to share something personal with you. My grandfather Mr. Gonzalo Flores is 87 years old. He migrated to Chicago over 60 years ago to forge a new life and was sent home a few days ago from the hospital to die.
Now, he will pass surrounded by a loving family with numerous children and grandchildren all adoring him, — and yes we will be sad. But his legacy and conviction will live on, because it lives in me, his granddaughter. I know what he was passionate about. I know the things that moved him. The things that had him fight so hard for a life so well lived. For him, that thing was family, simply family, and the belief that all children should have a home. The belief that all children should be loved and have access to an education and have the opportunity to grow into their best selves. And so, with my grandmother, and their existing 6 children, they adopted 4 more children and fostered nearly 200 other kids over the course of 20 years.
In 2002, I had the honor of joining Keith Decker & Peter McQueen to launch La Casa Norte but had no idea what the future held. I had no idea that my grandfather’s legacy would blossom under their leadership and that the things I also hold so dearly, would be a reality for thousands of people that La Casa Norte has touched.
Every single day, hundreds of youth and families across this city are increasingly becoming homeless. So I want to know from you. What will move you to action? Where will your legacy live?
In 2016, we will finally break ground on the Foundation Project and begin to build. With each brick that we lay, together we can take action. Once it is complete, we will be able to double and eventually triple the number of people we touch every year. I look forward to this time next year when I can share our progress with you.
Thank you for your dedication and for helping us bring our mission to life.
Every day, I realize how lucky I am. As the Drop-In Coordinator at La Casa Norte’s Casa Corazon Program for youth who are experiencing homelessness, I get to spend time with some of the strongest survivors I have ever encountered.
My team and I serve youth up to the age of 25 who are experiencing homelessness. These young people are on the streets of Chicago as a result of abuse at home, discrimination, and various influences stemming from poverty. To support these clients, we offer an emergency beds program so they have a safe place to sleep at night, and drop-in services so they can work towards their goals during the day.
While we provide a tremendous amount of support to countless young people, the number of youth in need of support continues to rise. The influx of youth in our programs can be challenging, particularly when the resources we have to serve them is limited. Each day, my team of staff works vigorously to support as many of our clients as best we can.
While my job allows me to make an impact in the lives of so many, the clients I work with constantly remind me of how fortunate I am.
Below is a list of the needs these young people ask for daily…and my thoughts as I do my best to serve their needs.
Do you know where I can get socks and shoes?
I reflect on my drawer full of socks at home.
Do you know where I can get food?
Wow- how much food have I wasted this year?
Do you know how I can get into housing?
My apartment has everything I need and want.
I have no bus fare. How can I get to my interview, school, and a safe space to sleep tonight?
I can’t remember one time in my life that I didn’t have the resources to move around.
Where can I get more clothing?
My closet is busting at the seams with clothing I often overlook.
How can I get my medication or medical care?
My insurance is truly a luxury.
These are just some of the many barriers to stability that our young people face on a daily basis.
How can our community rally around these youth and support them? Here is how!
-Volunteer to cook a warm meal in one of our programs or serve as a mentor for youth working towards creating a brighter future.
-Provide us with in-kind donations such as non-perishable food, undergarments, hygiene products, school supplies, holiday gifts and other helpful items to support our clients. Contact email@example.com to get involved!
-Get involved with one of our events to support our mission and programs.
-Make a donation to support our clients.
The impact of your time, donations, and support is so valuable to the youth and families served by our mission. What may seem like a small or minor gesture for you or me, can go to endless lengths for our clients. One less barrier for them to conquer as they aim towards stability can make a tremendous difference. We thank you for allowing us to offer our clients the resources to create change within themselves and throughout the community.
You might be familiar with the collection of inspirational stories “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, but actual chicken soup–or other comfort foods–can be good for the spirit too. Serving at La Casa Norte where I teach nutrition education classes to homeless youth, I have seen how cooking and eating can have a powerful therapeutic effect.
One night, I cooked a tasty eggplant lasagna for the Casa Corazόn program where homeless youth can be in a safe space and enjoy a hot meal. One of the young men served himself and sat down to eat. After he cleared his plate, he declared, “This meal has brought me back to life.” This sentimental comment elicited some chuckles from the others sitting around but the young man wasn’t ashamed. He said, “Seriously, I had a really hard day, but this meal has been the best part of it.” We often think of comfort foods as indulgent. This instance, however, is proof that a nutritious and warm meal can have the same soothing effect as higher calorie options.
I have also seen how youth participating in my weekly cooking clubs become empowered in the kitchen. Many of the residents of Solid Ground, a supportive housing facility, are struggling with the plight of a disenfranchised youth— coping with internal conflict, familial tensions, barriers to employment, and living in a collective environment with 15 male peers. They have a lot to be stressed out about, but the calming actions of chopping, stirring, and monitoring a cooking pan tends to refocus their energies. Besides relaxing, the young men are cultivating a valuable life skill that will help them become successful and independent individuals once they leave Solid Ground.
By cooking for the youth and teaching them how to cook for themselves, their nutrition improves, further lessening their dependence on the snack food they pick up at the gas station across from La Casa Norte. This is the expected consequence. The less anticipated result is the emotional impact that my cooking classes have had on their hectic lives. When working with youth confronting homelessness, this unquantifiable effect seems to be just as significant.
This post was written by Healthy Communities Corps member Jessica Surma.
Jessica serves at La Casa Norte as the Nutrition and Education Coordinator.
On April 30, 2014, a busload of nearly 60 of our clients, staff, and supporters traveled to the state capital to advocate for increased housing support in Illinois.
Throughout the day, La Casa Norte’s clients, staff, and supporters from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the Latino Policy Forum, and the Center for Changing Lives spoke with several key Representatives at the capital.
“It was a good first time experience for me to talk to Representatives about our situation living in Solid Ground,” says Charles, 19, a resident of La Casa Norte’s Supportive Housing Program. “I would encourage other people to go in the future because it important for them (representatives) to know what is going on with us,” he says.
Another youth client says he went to advocate for programs at La Casa Norte that provided him with housing. “If they don’t know what they are supporting they won’t do it, says Trenton. “We came and showed our faces,” he says. “It’s important to put a face to what they are supporting.”
“I support homeless services,” Rep. Kathleen Willis said when we met her. “I want to tell you it made a real difference to me that you came down, that I’m seeing the faces of the people impacted,” she said.
Our efforts included expressing the need to restore lost funding that serves students who are homeless. We also communicated the need for other support including emergency shelters, transitional and permanent housing, and services that assist people confronting homelessness.
“It is really important to provide funding for homeless youth in Chicago,” says Darien, 18, another client who felt he learned a lot by participating in Housing Advocacy Day. “I learned the process of how bills are passed and how it is not that easy,” he says.
Among the leaders we spoke with also included Rep. Elgie Simms who said that is was a pleasure meeting with us. “You are always welcome to come down and I will do my part,” he said.
La Casa Norte has participated in annual housing advocacy events since being founded in 2002.
“It is critical in a democracy that everyone has the chance to be involved in the policies and legislation that directly impacts their lives,” says Executive Director Sol Flores who leads the trips to Springfield. “For many of our clients, this is the first and only opportunity they have ever been given to do so,” she says.
“You are asking the right questions,” said Rep. Greg Harris when he met with us. “Yes I support homeless services, since I was homeless myself once,” he said.
Sen. Martinez also commented on how homelessness is a priority for the Latino Caucus and that she supports the work of La Casa Norte.
Thank you to all of our staff, clients, and supporters that contributed to making Housing Advocacy Day 2014 a great success!
“I support La Casa Norte and homeless services 200%,”-Rep. Marcus Evans
National Volunteer Week has come to an end-and it has been an amazing reminder of the fantastic work our volunteers have done this year! I am astounded by the dedication and skills our volunteers bring to La Casa Norte and the impact they make on our work.
As the Lutheran Volunteer Corps Member, I have had the wonderful opportunity of supporting La Casa Norte’s Volunteer Program. Having engaged with volunteers over the past eight months, here are five things I have learned about volunteerism:
1. Volunteers significantly increase La Casa Norte’s capacity to impact the local community.
I know it sounds obvious, but without volunteers cooking meals for our youth, organizing our Clothing Closet, researching sponsorship opportunities, and supporting our programs in other ways, there is no way we could possibly reach the community as we currently do. Last year our volunteers logged in over 2760 hours-I can’t wait to see what we will accomplish next year!
2. Volunteers are an invaluable part of our team.
Our staff have played a tremendous role in welcoming volunteers and training them to support our programs. It has been great to see staff and volunteers collaborate in the office, in the kitchen, and directly with clients receiving our services. Both staff and volunteers offer unique skills and experiences to each other, and we value the rapport they bring to our clients, our agency, and each other.
3. We rely on the unique skills of our volunteers to provide the best support to our clients.
Whether our volunteers have experience in social work, cooking, or customer service, we are grateful to have volunteers with such exceptional skills who allow us to grow and enhance our services.
4. It is more than just giving back.
Volunteering at La Casa Norte is also about forming a lasting connection with the local community and building relationships between the for-profit and non-profit sector. The personal rewards volunteers gain is an intrinsic part of the volunteer experience and the benefits extend beyond each individuals impact on the community. Our volunteers also make professional connections with our staff and learn what it means to provide direct service in a nonprofit in Chicago. You never know when a new career path, or lifelong passion will be revealed to you. I have seen the eyes of volunteers open in new ways as they learn, grow, and offer their talents to La Casa Norte.
5. Quality over Quantity
This is a difficult model to embrace in the volunteer sector. Of course, the idea of thousands of volunteers is exciting and looks great on paper-but what matters at the end of the day is the quality of the services our volunteers provide. I have learned that sometimes all it takes is a few, truly dedicated and skilled volunteers, to make a lasting impact on a program.
Ultimately, I have to say one last thank you to our amazing volunteers who continue to inspire me each day. On days when the impact we are making seems so small in comparison to such widespread issues, the selflessness of our volunteers remind me that every moment makes a difference… to our staff, our clients, and the Chicago community as a whole.