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  WINDY CITY TIMES

LGBTQ-inclusive La Casa Norte to open new facility
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli
2018-12-05

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Sol Flores, like her first name's meaning in Spanish ( which translates into "sun" in English ), lights up when she talks about the new Humboldt Park facility for La Casa Norte that is scheduled to open in December.

"What was important to us was to try and sell this dream and get people interested and say, 'We need more infrastructure and space in order to have more case managers, social workers, meals, bus passes,'" Flores told Windy City Times.

Flores—the executive director of the social-justice nonprofit—and her team of volunteers, donors and staff have been hard at work for seven years to get the funds and create a new building for the next chapter of La Casa Norte, which helps families and youth experiencing homelessness and provides educational and financial services to them. The new facility will house more homeless or at-risk families, LGBTQ youth and anyone who needs a place to rest their feet, get food or a meal, a health checkup or toiletries.

With 25 permanent supportive apartments on the upper floors, a community space, administrative offices, a Howard Brown Health clinic, a commercial kitchen and cafe, a food pantry, a rooftop garden, a courtyard and even a small stage for showcasing art, the new building is like its own community. Bringing it all together has taken the hard work of fundraising $20 million without losing the building's vision, Flores said. Now, its vision is almost completed—thanks to the securing of $20 million ( $6 million from private families and donors and $14 million from the public side ).

The five-story building, designed by Landon Bone Baker architects and which used to be a screw factory, embodies the positive energy of La Casa Norte and Flores. The combination of apartments—called Pierce House after Dennis Pierce, who donated the first $1 million to the project—and the community center called the Foundation Project will be buzzing with life and engagement through workshops, community events, drop-in consultations, art, sustainability and diversity.

Jeff Bone—the principal architect on the project who started working with Flores in 2010—said transparency and engagement are in line with La Casa Norte's principles, seen in the architecture's exterior spaces such as the residential courtyard and the rooftop garden, which embodies sustainability from a design perspective and from an environmental side. He said integrating color, artwork and natural light not only enhance the design but support the building's mission.

"The idea is that people can connect and see the activity and the energy that's happening inside the building from the street," Bone said," adding that it will light up the night. "There is this real transparent idea that is a principle of La Casa Norte."

To Flores, that was important to see in the design. She said she wants people walking by to be amazed at the building and see all the services it is offering to the community. With large modern glass windows going up the front of the building and color on the walls, the building will stand out from its neighbors. Especially since the strip of its location is a food and medical desert in Humboldt Park, she hopes its presence will combat those issues and influence locals to get involved.

In addition to having a food pantry and commercial kitchen, having a federally qualified healthcare center with Howard Brown is a partnership Flores is especially thrilled about because of its safe haven for LGBTQ youth and experience in serving communities. She said anyone in a low-income bracket will be able to get access to doctor visits and checkups, which will expand access to affordable healthcare.

"We chose [Howard Brown] as a partner because of their experience in working with young people experiencing homelessness at the Broadway Youth Center," she said. "They have a really strong, shared sense of organizational culture and a framework for how we serve young people. We view ourselves as a very strong LGBTQ alley and Howard Brown as a source for LGBTQ health, but they also see themselves as being able to serve everyone."

Its inclusive value is another worth reflected in the new space. Flores said she wants the new facility to be a safe space for the LGBTQ community and Humboldt Park. While she said she is proud of Boystown's reputation as a haven for LGBTQ folks, it cannot be the only one.

"As a woman of color who lives in the community, I am convicted to make sure that this community is welcoming to all of our brothers and sisters," Flores a Humboldt Park resident herself, said. "We have had to fight homophobia, transphobia and the good fight against it—there are things we can do to combat that [like] creating safe spaces here [and] making sure that our staff reflects this community as well."

Delavontay Wyatt has felt the safe space environment at La Casa Norte and is a product of the nonprofit's social justice work. Wyatt, who is 19 and identifies as bisexual, has lived in the one of the nonprofit's supportive housing buildings for 11 months and works at Dunkin Donuts down the street, a job he got thanks to the organization. He said La Casa Norte is helping him find permanent housing and start college at Truman College where he wants to study early childhood education and cosmetology. He has also learned life skills such as finances and sex education, a weekly program taught to residents.

"[La Casa Norte staff] are supportive and they are not mean about [being bisexual]," Wyatt said. "I am not the only LGBT person here. We are all family."

Wyatt recently came out as bi and said at first he was scared to do so, but after support from staff and participating in the Pride Parade with La Casa Norte, he felt empowered and part of the LGBTQ community. He has noticed his growth in the past 11 months and now has been conducting interviews and public speeches about the nonprofit's mission. He is not shy anymore.

"They helped me come out of my shell," Wyatt said.

Visit www.lacasanorte.org/who-we-are/ and howardbrown.org/byc/ .


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