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.”