Community Schools Equip Families for Success

Over the holiday season, Maria Robles, a West Chicago mom, and her son were suddenly forced out of their home. At a time when they should be celebrating, they found themselves in crisis.

For help, she turned to Crystal Dela Huerta, a family liaison working in her son’s school.

Family liaisons from WeGo Together for Kids (WeGo), a United Way community partner, provide services and advocacy to students and parents in schools across West Chicago Elementary School District 33. Much like social workers, they work to ensure students have safe housing, food in the cupboards and healthy and thriving households. WeGo helps students focus on their academics by relieving them of unneeded stress.

This is just a piece of WeGo’s work to create “community schools” that address residents’ needs and prioritize more than students’ academic success.

“We’re helping families reach self-sufficiency, and we’re really being a guide for them, connecting them to resources in the community,” Crystal said. “The best and most rewarding part of my job is building those relationships with families.”

As the lead agency of our West Chicago Neighborhood Network, United Way of Metro Chicago partners with WeGo to provide financial support, training opportunities, and more to its staff. In turn, WeGo is able to sustain and grow its programs and improve the quality of its services.

For example, through a grant, United Way was able to send WeGo family liaisons to the Siemer Institute for Family Stability’s annual conference. There, they gained new tools that make it easier to identify families’ needs and provide more robust supports, including housing assistance for families who face homelessness or are housing insecure.  

Crystal Dela Huerta (left) works with Maria Robles (right), a West Chicago mom, to connect her and her son to community resources that address their needs.

For Maria and her son, this support was critical. Maria, a resilient, resourceful mom, first met Crystal when she and her husband of 14 years began divorce proceedings. Hoping to connect her son to counseling, Maria reached out to the school for help.

She was quickly referred to Crystal, who enrolled the pair in individual counseling. Through WeGo, the Robles also got help filing legal paperwork and accessing food, clothing and transportation to and from meetings with lawyers.

Then, when they were forced to vacate their home in December, Maria knew she could turn to Crystal for support. Through their Siemer Grant funding, Maria secured rental assistance and was able to move into a new apartment with her son just before Christmas.

Now that their most basic needs have been met, Maria, with Crystal’s help, is working towards financial security. Her goal is to find a more spacious home for her and her son.

“I’ve built a really good relationship with Ms. Robles. I’ve seen so much growth in her,” Crystal said.

And though they’re still facing day-to-day challenges, Maria’s only looking to the future.

“Mom says she’s extremely grateful and happy with the services that she’s received,” Crystal said, translating Maria’s praise from Spanish to English. “When she was in the process of divorce, it was really difficult for her. She kinda felt as though the world was crumbling and falling all around her and she wasn’t going to get through it.”

“But, she said, ‘I never would have imagined that through this phone call I made to ask for help that I would receive all I needed,’” Crystal added on Maria’s behalf. “‘Now, I feel like, little by little, I’m moving forward.’”

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The generosity of people like you ensures that every parent and child can access life-changing supports in their community. Join United Way’s fight today!


Primo Center Houses & Inspires Homeless Families

For nearly 40 years, the Primo Center for Women and Children has cared for our most vulnerable neighbors on the city’s west side — women and children who are homeless.

Through housing, shelter and childcare programs, Primo Center not only places families in safe living situations, but empowers parents to break cycles of poverty and homelessness for their children.

Today, it’s especially important, as more than 40 percent of children in homeless families are under the age of six. Research shows these children are more likely to experience severe anxiety, depression or withdrawal as a result of their living situation.

To reduce this trauma, Primo Center — a United Way community partner — places families in safe, therapeutic settings where they’re encouraged to regain their independence and find permanent housing. They can also access a myriad of physical and mental health services and violence prevention programs.

Poverty and homelessness aren’t typically due to one issue or circumstance, which is why we at United Way work with a network of community partners, like Primo Center, to create a safety net for our neighbors facing hard times. By bringing together social service agencies, we’re able to combine Primo Center’s services with resources other United Way partners provide. This allows us to address a wide range of needs on a person’s road to stability.

In response to the quality of care she received at Primo Center, Ms. Jones, a young woman from North Lawndale was inspired to pen the following poem:

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You, too, can be a beacon of light by ensuring our city’s most vulnerable residents are housed. Support our work to connect individuals and families to life-changing programs and services.



La Casa Norte Gives Unhoused Youth a Place to Call Home

As temperatures across the region plunged to lethal levels last week, most Chicagoans retreated to the safety of their homes. But for many across the region, such an option is a luxury.

In Cook County, it’s estimated that 80,000 to 125,000 individuals are homeless, including thousands of youth and young adults who live in shelters, stay with a series of extended family members, or couch surf. 

Fortunately, during the cold snap, social service agencies, churches and shelters across the city, including three emergency youth shelters managed by La Casa Norte, provided a haven from the cold.

A United Way community partner, La Casa Norte works to resolve housing insecurity in the Chicago region by providing emergency, transitional and permanent housing, as well as supportive services to youth and families.

On Thursday, despite the -27-degree wind chill outside, Shanavia Stevens, coordinator of La Casa Norte’s Casa Corazon program, greeted teens and young adults who sought shelter at the housing agency’s Back of the Yards location.

“It’s important to have a safe haven for young people, even those who aren’t homeless and need somewhere to go and other supports,” Shanavia said.

Tackling the root of housing insecurity

While shelters were critical during the recent polar vortex, La Casa Norte works year-round to eliminate housing insecurity.

Homelessness impacts people in all walks of life, but teenagers and young adults are especially vulnerable, as they often lack the financial means to support themselves. Family disputes, parents’ lack of acceptance of their sexuality and domestic violence are common reasons that young people become homeless.

To immediately address this crisis and inequity, La Casa Norte has facilitated three emergency shelter locations for local youth ages 18 to 24 since early 2014. They have 45 beds between the Back of the Yards location and two Logan Square shelters, one of which houses pregnant girls, young mothers and their children.

Furthermore, through a combination of permanent housing and supportive services, La Casa Norte works to resolve the root causes of homelessness and provide robust supports to ensure their clients’ long-term success.

“We want to get you housed, but then we want to look at what are the other things we need to address in order to ensure that you’re able to maintain your housing or employment or whatever your goal is,” said Jessica Rodriguez, associate director of development at La Casa Norte. “Everyone that walks through our doors receives their own tailored plan.”

Providing not just a house, but a home

On Thursday, when the temperatures dipped to a record-low, Wynisha Henderson, 22, and a few peers watched movies, played games, worked on the computers and visited with the shelter’s in-house case manager.

Wynisha has visited the youth shelter and drop-in center since November when she lost her income and was evicted from her apartment. An inconspicuous two-story building along 47th Street, the drop-in center and shelter is a place for youth to relax, socialize and plan for their futures. The living space includes tables, lockers, computer desks, a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower and a laundry corner.  Wynisha, an artist, loves to draw and paint using the art supplies provided in the recreational space.

Bunk beds run along the walls of two co-ed rooms upstairs. Downstairs, residents are fed two home-cooked meals a day and provided with toiletries.

For those who don’t want to stay overnight or have other arrangements, they’re welcome to hang out in the drop-in center during daytime hours and to attend social events, like Job Club or a trip to an open mic night in the neighborhood. However they use the youth center, Shanavia simply wants it to be a safe, accepting space.

“We’re dealing with young people in a very vulnerable situation,” Shanavia said. “And a lot of the times it’s their first time experiencing homelessness or coming to a shelter and they may have had other experiences in their home when they weren’t treated humanely.”

“We want them to know that homelessness isn’t your identity, it’s your situation,” she added.

Helping young adults reach their full potential

When young adults access La Casa Norte’s emergency shelters and drop-in centers, the agency’s caseworkers also help them begin the process of securing their own home. Through a coordinated network of housing providers, the young adults are assessed for risks and placed on a city-wide list to be enrolled in a permanent housing program.

At this time, Wynisha has completed the assessment and is awaiting placement. In the meantime, the program’s caseworkers are providing additional support and guidance to ensure she can successfully live independently. After experiencing a tough year last year, Wynisha is eager to enroll in school, find a job and secure permanent housing this year.

She’s considering two vet technician programs so she can explore her love for animals, an interest she discovered last year when she visited a rural farm in Wisconsin. La Casa Norte employees are helping her access her transcripts and weigh her options. The previous day, Wynisha sat with a La Casa Norte volunteer, preparing for an interview with an animal anti-cruelty organization scheduled for later in the week. She learned tips to pitch herself and convey her passion for the work.

And while there’s no word on a permanent housing placement yet, Wynisha remains optimistic 2019 will be her year to shine.

“Being here has helped me mentally and physically. It’s been very positive,” Wynisha said. “Last year was rough, but it’s been a really good year so far. Transitioning to the shelter has helped a lot.”

“But even if I got placed, it’s still home here.”


Housing Program Provided “Safe Haven” for Recovering Veteran

Seventeen years ago, while living in a recovery home, David McGowan received an offer he couldn’t refuse. A native Chicagoan from the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, David was invited to leave the recovery home he shared with 18 other men and move into his own furnished studio apartment in Wicker Park.

Having been homeless for years, David quickly accepted the invitation, though it meant embarking on the grueling journey of recovering from drug addiction.

That life-changing offer came  in October 2001 from Renaissance Social Services (RSSI), a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner working to end homelessness in Chicago. Each year, RSSI places hundreds of the city’s most vulnerable individuals, like David, in permanent supportive housing, while also helping to tackle their other challenges.

In its 21-year tenure, leaders of Renaissance Social Services have recognized that homelessness and poor health work in tandem. Homelessness can be both the result and cause of mental and physical health issues, and stable housing, in addition to supportive health services, is a critical factor in improving people’s mental and physical health.

Utilizing a variety of wraparound services, RSSI case managers and other community providers address and help clients mitigate the root causes of their housing insecurity, including mental illness, chronic health conditions, substance use disorders and more.

In 2017, RSSI housed 252 homeless individuals and families and provided clinical services that resulted in 81 percent remaining out of inpatient psychiatric facilities, 92 percent avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations, and 82 percent achieving mental health stability.

For David, a 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran, Renaissance Social Services not only provided a place for him to call home, they gave him a “safe haven” and the structure needed to turn his life around.

“It meant the world to me. For so many years, I would get out of treatment and because I was a chronic relapser, every time I’d go back and do the same thing and get the same results,” David said of his drug use. “So, I needed a place to go where the whole set and surroundings were different. I needed a new structure, a new way. And this was the beginning.”

Since then, David’s moved to another Renaissance apartment complex in Bucktown. However, he’s maintained a sense of stability that’s encouraged his sobriety. He generously credits Renaissance Social Services for playing a critical role in his recovery by creating an environment absent of drug activity, teaching him life and homecare skills, holding him accountable for taking his medicine and helping him navigate systems so he can receive public benefits.

“When you’re in an addiction and you come out of that addiction, you are really undisciplined. You don’t know how to pay your rent. You’re not really about taking your medicines and housekeeping,” David said. “[The case managers] were my perseverance. You know how some people have a good luck charm? They were my motivators.”

With his life and health stabilized, David is closer with his family and serves as a sponsor for others living with addiction.

“If I can just stay sober, help another [person] , and be available for my children and my grandchildren and my great-children, that’s a whole bunch right there,” he said with a smile.