HIV service agency Chicago House has been making headlines the past two years for a massive expansion into transgender housing, employment, medical services, programs and legal support.
Now, the organization is taking that work into Cook County Jail.
The Cook County Sheriff's Office has announced a new partnership with Chicago House in a Windy City Times exclusive.
"This is the right thing to do," said Bonnie Wade, director of the TransLife Center at Chicago House. "We have to go where the need is, and it just makes sense to start this partnership."
Chicago House will provide services to transgender detainees as well as those being released from the jail. The organization will also be conducting trainings and support for jail staff.
Officer Erica Rosas is chair of the jail's Gender Identity Committee, which oversees transgender housing and programs at the jail. She sought out Chicago House in an effort to improve transgender services at the jail, she said.
"It's a no-brainer," Rosas said.
The announcement comes in the wake of a large expansion of services at Chicago House, which has long been a HIV housing service provider. Chicago House is in the process of opening its TransLife Center, a North Side transitional living house for transgender people. The organization has been steadily adding services to that project under the directorship of Wade, a longtime LGBTQ housing advocate.
Advocates have noted that few resources are available for transgender women upon release from jail. Sometimes, they are released in the middle of the night without housing, money, employment or other resources.
Chicago House hopes to change that by connecting trans detainees to the organization's TransLife Center before release.
Through Chicago House, transgender detainees will have access to a support group in the jail, one-on-one support with Chicago House staff, legal assistance and planning services before being discharged.
Channyn Lynne Parker, connect to care coordinator for Chicago House, has already started meeting with detainees, running a weekly support group in the jail for transgender people.
Parker is believed to be the first out transgender person to work in Cook County Jail.
"[The jail] sought the help of someone who has walked in [the trans detainees'] shoes," said Parker. "I was a stone's throw from being there. It could have been me."
Chicago House will work with those released on securing housing and employment. The organization said it hopes to cut down on recidivism at the jail.
Asked if a partnership with the jail, historically seen as an unsafe place for LGBT people, would be complicated for Chicago House, both Parker and Wade said the move would allow Chicago House to support the community's most marginalized.
"We go to where the need is, and it just makes sense to start this partnership," Wade said.