When Center on Halsted opened in 2007, it instantly became Chicago's most-recognizable LGBT institution, and many hailed it as a beacon of hope for future generations.
More than five years later, the Center offers a laundry list of youth programs and services from basic meals to cultural events to career counseling. Its services continue to grow, as the organization recently began offering youth programs seven days a week.
But like most large LGBT organizations, Center on Halsted has come under scrutiny, especially when it comes to youth.
A look at the Center's youth services
The Center's 990 tax form for 2011 shows that in terms of program funding, youth services are the Center's first priority. Last year, the Center reported that its youth program was its largest, funded at $885,219. HIV/AIDS services followed at $712,245, and cultural programs accounted for $518,651. A 2013 projection provided by the Center budgets more than a million dollars for youth services.
On most weekdays, youth ages 18-24 can attend the Center's breakfast program, which provides meals and programming Monday through Thursday. Young people can also visit the Center for counseling services, STD/ HIV prevention programs, sex education, access to computers, job readiness support and after school programs like art classes and sports. Youth have access to open gym hours at the Center, movies, leadership training and other events. The Center hosts a ten-week spoken word apprenticeship for youth in partnership with After School Matters called "Youth Speak OUT." A program called "Street Law" educates young people on legal issues such as signing an apartment lease, rights that youth have when applying for college, and employment discrimination.
On weekends, the Center partners with About Face Theatre for programs, and it also offers a Saturday cinema event, among other things.
Tim'm West, associate director of youth programs, said that when people talk about "youth" at the Center, they are usually referring to street-based youth. But the Center serves young people ages 13-24 from all walks of life.
"We have a very broad population here at the Center on Halsted," West said. "So it's not just all street-based youth… Certainly, they are a population that has more urgent immediate needs around homeless and sometimes healthcare and different things like that. A lot of those youth don't live in this neighborhood. They come from other areas of town where they don't feel as safe to be LGBTQ and open."
West notes that the wide age range often means the Center's youth program serves three populationsranging from youth in their early teens to those approaching their mid-20s.
Each week, staffers in the youth program post a new schedule of events on the youth space door. The colorful calendar lists the week's activities, noting when age restrictions apply, and it lists special events happening at the Center.
Despite a growing number of youth programs, West still has ideas for improvement. He notes that vocational training for queer youth is rarely offered in creative fields, something he is currently working to change.
"A lot of queer youth are good at music or dance or visual art," West said. "Why are we always talking about the normative professions when we talk about vocation?"
Past complaints from youth
Many youth have expressed discontent with the Center over the years.
In the past, youth alleged that Center staff made them enter the building through a side door, to keep them out of view of the public. In an April 2011 interview, Center CEO Modesto "Tico" Valle said the side entrance had originally been designed to give youth privacy when entering the building, but the Center had to stop using the door over the negative perception it generated.
"We don't want people to feel like they're second-class citizens," Valle said in April.
Other youth have complained that the Center is too strict, calling police and banning them for minor offenses.
The Center has navigated disapproval from both sides, however. Residents have complained that the organization attracts problematic youth who commit crimes and harass residents.
Those two conflicting viewpoints have often placed the Center in a tricky position when it comes to youth.
Youth speak about the Center
In August, Windy City Times reporters began a three-month survey of LGBTQ youth, primarily in Lakeview (the results from that survey were published on Nov. 14 in Windy City Times and are available online). In that survey, youth were asked to identify what LGBTQ services, if any, they accessed.
A surprisingly high number of young people reported, unsolicited, that they had been banned from Center on Halsted at some point. Many said they believed they were still banned. Others said they refused to use services at the Center because of negative experiences.
West, who has worked at the Center since June, acknowledged that reputation. But he feels that view is sometimes propagated by youth who have committed more serious offenses than they are willing to admit.
Several youth told Windy City Times reporters that they had been banned for seemingly minor offenses. Several said they were kicked out for falling asleep at the Center.
"That's never happened," West said, when asked about reports from youth. "It's never something as soft as someone falling asleep."
West said the Center has been working on changing the culture that may have contributed to that perceptionmoving toward one that celebrates youth rather than viewing them as problems in the community.
Earlier this year, the Center announced the implementation of restorative justice practices in place of banning.
Restorative justice is an approach to handling supposed wrongdoing that aims to provide alternatives to punishment. It looks at the experiences of people involved and attempts to heal those afflicted rather than discipline an alleged wrongdoer.
At the Center, young people are now "suspended" instead of "banned," and they are allowed to re-enter the Center after completing a mediation process. (This process has been a source of debate between Center staff and some community activists, who argue that the Center's process is out of step with the spirit of restorative justice principles).
So far, West said, the new process has been successful, allowing many people who thought they were banned for years to re-enter the building.
"A lot of the young people who have been suspended are in the Center now doing great things," said West, adding that some youth who had been banned before recently received the Center's monthly "Youth Excellence Award."
The Center also has a grievance process, West noted. Young people can file complaints about Center staff and return them to either West or the reception desk.
One who remains unconvinced is Omari, a 23-year-old bisexual-identified youth. Despite the new mediation process, Omari has been banned from the Center for about two years, he said.
"They get funding for youth, they take the money, and then they ban the youth," he said.
"So you have people sponsoring the Center for youth programs, and the programs are not being used because all the youth are getting banned and kicked out … that's setting them up to cause destructions or sit on people's porches."
Omari sees the relationship between youth providers and youth as co-dependent. Young people need Lakeview organizations for services, he said. But those organizations need youth to get funding for their programs, too.
"The sponsors don't see this," he said. "The sponsors don't come talk to us. They just give money because we ain't nothing but a tax write-off to them."
Omari was initially banned for pepper-spraying another youth who he alleges was trying to attack him. He now spends his time at Broadway Youth Center and the library, he said. He also stays at The Crib, The Night Ministry's LGBTQ-friendly youth shelter.
Omari is not alone in his anger towards the Center.
"The Center is a bunch of bullshit," one young transgender woman bluntly stated in the survey. She said she feels that some Center staffers are out of touch with the needs of homeless youth in the area. Still, she frequents the Center.
Windy City Times reporters estimate that the majority of the more than 100 street-based youth interviewed or surveyed for the series volunteered that they had been banned at least once from the Center.
Very few youth stated that they had been banned from The Crib or Broadway Youth Center. Because the survey did not specifically ask each youth about their feelings about Center on Halsted, it is impossible to state what percentage of those surveyed have actually been banned. For the same reason, the surveys did not capture youth who do feel positively about the Center, its programs and staff.
West estimates that less than one percent of the Center's youth population is banned.
"We see about 1,000 youth over the course of a year, and obviously I think there's about ten [suspended]."
West also noted that people of all ages, and not just youth, can be suspended.
According to West, part of the challenge has been getting the word out to people banned from the Center under old rules. Some youth were banned years ago by staff who have long since left the organization, and those banned may not even know they can seek mediation.
Three Windy City Times reporters interviewed West and former Center on Halsted spokesperson Brian Richardson over the course of two days (Richardson recently left his position at the Center to work at the Chicago Department of Public Health).
At the conclusion of the first interview, as reporters were about to leave the building, two Center security guards came down the stairs with a transgender youth in tow.
Reporters saw that the young person was wearing handcuffs. (The youth later told reporters that they identified as transgender but did not provide a preferred pronoun. As such, this article uses the gender-neutral pronoun "they").
Security guards led the young person through the Center/ Whole Foods lobby, where patrons sat watching. Guards brought the youth to a room behind the Center's reception desk area.
Within moments, several young people crowded the reception desk, asking why the trans youth had been detained. Three different young people told Windy City Times that they had watched the youth get handcuffed but that no confrontation had taken place prior.
Staff members indicated that the youth had been handcuffed and detained because they violated their ban from the Center.
Thirty minutes later, this reporter tracked down the trans youth, who had been let go by guards.
The youth, 17, expressed hesitancy about speaking on-record, and has therefore not been named.
"I forgot that I was banned," the youth claimed.
According to the youth, guards approached them and asked if they were allowed to be at the Center. Guards then handcuffed the youth and took them into an office behind the reception area where they looked the youth up on a computer system. The youth was released from the Center's custody shortly after and was allowed to leave the building.
The youth has been banned since June, they said. But they had been to the Center since that time without incident. Asked if they were nervous about being handcuffed, they said they were not because they did not feel they had done anything wrong.
Richardson, who also witnessed the handcuffing incident, said it is rare for the Center guards to handcuff visitors.
West echoed that sentiment during a follow-up interview the next day. According to West, security guards usually only detain Center patrons for arrestable offences, such as trespassing.
"One of the reasons we do it is to protect [the youth]. For example, that youth yesterday was allowed to go just under the promise that they would avoid the Center. Because if police get involved, and they are trespassing, they could actually get arrested and taken to jail. So when youth are serving suspension, for their own protection, we advise them like, 'Just stay away and honor the suspension period so that you don't put yourself in a worse situation.'"
In the case of the trans youth who was handcuffed, West said, "That particular youth had been suspended multiple times for fighting, like for hurting people."
West said he has only seen one or two instances of the Center detaining people. Unlike the incident with the trans youth, who was detained but almost immediately let go, West stated that security detains people when the Center has called police to come make an arrest
Still, Center on Halsted contracts with a security firm that hires off-duty police officers, a position that sometimes appears to confuse the line between the Center's security team and police.
Many youth, even those banned, regularly gather on the sidewalk next to the Center along Waveland Avenue and smoke or chat. On most days, a Center security guard stands next to the Whole Foods parking garage, dispersing crowds that block the sidewalk.
Asked to define the perimeters of his jurisdiction when working for the Center, one officer stated that the Center's boundaries stop at the end of the building. But his jurisdiction, he said, is the whole city because he is a Chicago Police officer. As such, he can tell the youth to disperse no matter where they are on the sidewalk.
Generation Halsted is an eight-week series that seeks to capture youth voices not typically represented in Windy City Times and other media. The young people portrayed have many housing situations, gender identities and sexual orientations. The series looks primarily, but not exclusively, at Boystown, where an influx of young LGBTQ people has been a source of controversy. Windy City Times will continue to explore the issues raised here beyond this series.
Look for WindyCityTimes on www.youtube.com/windycitytimes and www.vimeo.com/windycitytimes or click the "YOUTH" tab at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com .