Until a few years ago, Chicago House knew when its mission would be complete, when it could close up shop.
"There at the beginning. Here until the cure," was the HIV service agency's tagline for decades
And according to AIDS experts, that day is close. Where advocates once pushed for increased structures and funding to fight HIV, today they are asking providers to think up exit strategies, to make themselves obsolete by ending to virus.
That had long been the intention of Chicago House, a service organization founded in 1985 to provide housing to people with HIV/ AIDS.
But a few years ago, one client turned that plan upside down. The result has been a community initiative that is rapidly transforming both the agency and the city's transgender community at large.
A challenge to serve transgender people
A couple years ago, Chicago House staff learned that its services were falling short for transgender clients.
Trisha Holloway, a transgender woman interning in the organization's Sweet Misgiving's bakery at the time, reported that she felt unsupported at the agency.
The moment was a wake-up call for the 25 year-old organization.
"I just thought I knew all this stuff," said Stan Sloan, CEO of Chicago House.
But the more the agency explored the challenges facing transgender people, the more apparent it became that Chicago House had work to do.
Working with Holloway and other transgender people, Chicago House started making changes. Gendered bathroom markers were replaced with "unisex" signs, interview applications were re-written to be trans-inclusive and board members were trained. All staff members were sent on a retreat to Center on Halsted to learn about transgender issues.
As Chicago House staffers learned more, they saw serious gaps in services for trans people across agencies and government entities. The traditional structures were not working for many trans people for myriad reasons. And the more Chicago House learned about transgender issues, the deeper it found itself in the search for solutions.
"We didn't have a goal of transforming the agency," said Sloan. "The agency was fine, but we fell into this because the need presented itself to us."
The creation of the TransLife Center
In April 2011, Sloan and Holloway gathered LGBT community leaders into the living room of an empty North Side home. The home, they explained, was the future site of Chicago's first transgender-specific housing, the TransLife Center.
The four-story home had formerly served as a hospice for Chicago House. Thousands afflicted with AIDS died there, but as treatment for HIV improved, the need for the site diminished.
The creation of the TransLife Center renewed the house's sacred purpose, Sloan said.
Now as Chicago House pounds out the details of the program, Sloan said, workers are pounding out renovations on the home.
Designs for Dignity, an organization that does pro-bono design work for non-profits, is transforming the house home using donated materials. The kitchen going into the house was formerly displayed at the Chicago Merchandise Mart.
"It's like stuff that none of us could have in our homes, but it's going to be in the TransLife Center," he said.
The house is not the only thing at Chicago House that is changing. Chicago House has hired a number of transgender-identified staff and board members.
Bonnie Wade, a renowned Chicago-based LGBTQ youth advocate, will be heading up the new transgender initiatives at Chicago House. Angelique Monroe, a transgender performer and advocate, is now working as the agency's receptionist. Channyn Lynne Parker, a longtime HIV and transgender advocate, is serving as the program's Connect2Care coordinator.
Chicago House has also announced that Owen Daniel-McCarter, attorney from the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, will be heading up legal services full-time for the TransLife Project.
Also on board is Dr. Rob Garofalo and Dr. Tavis Gayles, who will provide health services, HIV testing and counseling, linkage to care and health education.
Residents will further be able to participate in TransWorks, a four-week job readiness program.
Residents will be selected from the Chicago Central Referral System wait list, an online City of Chicago list that allows those experiencing homelessness to apply for housing.
The site has nine bedrooms.
For those not living in the house itself, Chicago House is also opening up 28 of its scattered site housing units to transgender applications this year.
And they'll be opening up the lower level of the house to provide support services.
Sloan and Wade anticipate that the house could be opening as soon as March 1.
"There's so much intention that's being put into this," Wade said. "We're not moving at lightning speed, but we're also not moving at a snail's pace. We're moving thoughtfully forward."
A new mission
Chicago House today is abuzz with fresh energy and excitement, and sentiment that has been echoed by many transgender Chicagoans.
Among them is Keisha Allen, a Chicago House client since May. She dreads returning to the shelter she stays at each night, and housing that is trans-affirming could be a game-changer for her.
"It will change my circumstances immensely, in part because I'm at a shelter," Allen said. "Living in a shelter as a transgender woman is very very hard."
On Feb. 7, Sloan and Allen will be speaking at the U.S. Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS about their work on the TransLife Project.
Sloan and Wade say that thus far, Chicago House's journey to serving transgender people feels blessed.
Chicago House received four six-figure gifts to make the project a reality.
The transgender community has also embraced the Chicago House, Sloan says. And in many ways, that brings Chicago House back to the LGBT community it largely served during early years of the AIDS crisis.
"For us, it's a circle," said Sloan. "We were founded by the gay and lesbian community, and we listened to the needs of those who came to us for services. We eventually became a homeless service provider that was HIV and AIDS specified, and our overage client looked like the average homeless service client. You hear some rumblings sometimes…'Oh, they no longer serve the gay community, and they're not that invested in LGBT anymore. Just listening to the needs, all of the sudden, we're back around to LGBT."
Wade said that working on the TransLife Project thus far has been humbling.
"It's sacred work. It's critical," Wade said. "I think all of the sentiment that I'm feeling from Chicago House is that we stand in honor of what we're about to do, recognizing our humility in everything that we're about to do."
This year, Chicago House is operating with a new mission statement that now includes its work with the transgender community.
Its tagline has also changed. "There at the beginning. Here to meet the challenge," it says.