La Casa Norte: Transforming Communities One Life at a Time

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Used clothing closet at La Casa Norte. Photo by Amelia Orozco | EXTRA

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome people are invisible, and it’s not because they have special powers. On the contrary, it’s because they are often the most powerless in our communities. They are the homeless youth and families in Chicago. Since opening its doors in 2002, La Casa Norte, a social services organization in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, has been a dedicated advocate for this sector of the community—the forgotten and unseen.

“These are survivors of domestic violence, doubling up in small apartments, living in cars and in and out of shelters,” indicated Eva Green, La Casa Norte’s media representative. “There is no one reason why people end up homeless,” she added. “There are youth who are abused, young people from the LGBT community, families who don’t know what support is available, not just one type of person and not all for the same reasons,” said Green. “Oftentimes, people who are undocumented immigrants don’t seek help for fear of deportation, which is definitely not a concern,” assured Green, “we also have bilingual staff and resources,” she added.

La Casa Norte’s approach is to address homelessness first with a focus on reducing the amount of harm the client is experiencing. This includes everything from finding a safe place to sleep to working with the client to come up with a plan that will help them move forward with their goals. “Some clients are working with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to get their children back, or getting through a traumatic event,” informed Green. At Solid Ground, up to 16 male youths ages 16 to 21, live in private rooms, and share a common kitchen, a computer center and recreation room. At Casa Corazon, clients drop in for lunch and dinner, and use the phone and computer to manage things in their lives such as applying for jobs and securing housing. Clients also have access to a used clothing closet at La Casa Norte’s main office at 3533 W. North Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60647.

Julie Rodriguez, a 40-year-old client of La Casa Norte, spoke to EXTRA about how they came to her aid when no one else would. “All I knew were shelters. I never believed in anybody, but somebody came to my rescue,” she said of her first contact with social workers at La Casa Norte. Rodriguez was sexually assaulted as a child by her father and step-uncle, and her mother never did anything about it. She had been dealing with the betrayal and trauma all her life, and had been getting by, but everything turned upside down when her own daughter Ashley, then 14 years old, was sexually abused by a family member. “I lapsed,” she said. “All the bad memories came back,” Rodriguez added. They found themselves living in the car because there was nowhere else they felt safe, not even shelters. She had dealt with her own trauma as a teen by turning to drugs and alcohol. As a young mom, she had lost her children to DCFS when it was reported they were living in a car. Today, she and Ashley, now 17 years old, live in their own apartment, and they are both receiving counseling and treatment for the trauma they have suffered. “At the shelters, you get food and a bed, and then you have to leave. At Casa Norte, they call and check on us. My case manager comes with me everywhere,” said Rodriguez. “She comes to court with me, to my appointments. They give us bus passes so we can get where we need to go. Now I have everything I want. I have a roof over my head. I’m not living with nobody, not in a shelter, not in a car,” Rodriguez added.

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Phot by Francisco Dominguez | EXTRA

Supporters of La Casa Norte have been key in keeping its doors open, which also includes scattered site permanent supportive housing, private apartments and a drop-in center. In 2013, nearly 1,000 volunteers contributed over 2,500 volunteer hours, from cooking dinners and distributing winter coats to wrapping gifts during the holidays.

This year, Gov. Pat Quinn announced a $2 million grant to support the construction of a new, expanded community center, which will include 25 supportive housing units, a drop-in center with showers, a health center, and an employment lab. The new building will go up at La Casa Norte’s existing site, but will also take over a large gap between its main office and Solid Ground, the permanent youth housing on the same block. “We are in alignment with Chicago’s Plan 2.0 to end homelessness,” said Sol Flores, the center’s executive director, of the city’s positive indications of support as they work alongside private and public entities to address homelessness.

The capital campaign to raise funds for the new center for La Casa Norte’s growing client base is well underway, with an additional $350,000 raised at this year’s gala in October. “Thus far,” said Flores, “we have raised and have pledges totaling $8 million, almost halfway there,” she said of the center’s $17 million goal. She is hopeful that by this time next year, through philanthropic efforts from corporations and private citizens, they will have met their goal.

La Casa Norte has a lineup of events and ideas on how to join them in transforming lives. Their #Unselfie movement includes participation on #GivingTuesday (Dec. 2) and throughout the holiday season by donating coats, toys, and much more. Visit www.lacasanorte.org for more information.

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