Humboldt Park’s La Casa Norte answers question: ‘What are all the things someone needs to be well?’ March 6, 2019

“Homelessness is not an identity; it’s a circumstance. No mom wakes up and says they want their kids on the street. No young person says I want to be vulnerable or sell sex to have a safe place to sleep. Things happen – people lose their jobs, women escape domestic violence, young people are kicked out because of their sexual orientation. There are a lot of reasons why people end up in these circumstances. But every single person I’ve ever met over the last 16 years shows up and says: ‘I want to do something to change my life today.’ And they’re working on it.”

That’s what Sol Flores told Chicago’s ABC News in an interview about her role as the founding Executive Director of La Casa Norte. The 16-year-old nonprofit serves people experiencing homelessness with a variety of supports – both immediate needs like food and shelter as well as longer-term issues related to health care, job readiness, and case management.

As the city’s needs grew, so too did the agency’s services. They expanded from 2 employees to 85, and from 200 annual clients to 3,000. They took on the management of three shelters and more than 100 units of permanent supportive housing. But for over a decade, the organization’s headquarters remained the same – a small storefront with a converted second-floor apartment.

Jessica Rodriguez, La Casa’s Associate Director of Development, tells IFF: “At one point – I don’t know how – 21 people were working out of that second-floor space. It was really tight, the roof was leaking, the floor was on a slant, and a lot of things just didn’t work. And, we were still growing.”

Fully aware of the space constraints for staff and clients alike, La Casa’s leadership embarked on what turned out to be a six-year journey to plan, design, raise money for, and build a new space. The result is a 47,000-square-foot, 5-story, $20 million facility in Humboldt Park that held its Grand Opening celebration on Feb. 13. The massive new space is half-housing, half-community center and includes comprehensive wrap-around services for people experiencing homelessness:

  • Housing – 24 units of permanent supportive housing
  • Food Access – The new center includes both a hot meal program as well as a food pantry with fresh produce
  • Health Care – A primary and behavioral health clinic operated by Howard Brown Health Care is on site
  • Safe Space – A drop-in center provides a safe space for youth escaping violence or bullying
  • Community Spaces – Computer labs, training spaces, a rooftop garden, and a small art gallery are among the spaces available to any community member
  • Administrative Spaces – La Casa’s staff now has offices and lounge space

“When we thought about the design of the facility, we asked: What are all the things someone needs to be well?” Rodriguez says. “We want people to come in and feel welcomed – whether it’s just for a warm meal, or for a longer stay.”

Financing the facility required a combination of debt, tax credits, grants, and donations, including:

  • $7.4 million in New Markets Tax Credits equity from PNC Bank, with allocations provided by:
    • Chicago Development Fund ($9.5 million)
    • IFF ($6 million)
    • PNC CDE ($3.5 million)
  • $4 million in private donations
  • $4.2 million loan from the City of Chicago
  • $3.5 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) from the City of Chicago
  • $1.1 million loan from PNC Bank
  • $187,000 donation of tax credit equity
  • $107,000 grant from the State of Illinois

“It was very, very difficult to get all the funding. We got a lot of ‘no’s’ along the way,” Flores told ABC. “A lot of folks asked us, ‘Why does it have to look so nice?’ One of the things that was really important to us was we want a space where people feel respected, where they have a strong sense of dignity, where they feel comfortable – the same way you and I would like to feel.”

Joe Neri, IFF CEO, says: “This is exactly the type of high-impact community project that New Markets Tax Credits were intended to support. Nonprofits like La Casa Norte play a vital role in our society, but too often they are denied access to the capital they need to create beautiful, modern, mission-driven spaces. Our mission is to change that – and to make sure we align capital with justice.”

IFF provided financing to La Casa Norte on a previous project back in 2005, when the organization was just a few years old. That $356,000 loan enabled the agency to move into larger headquarters and convert its previous site into transitional housing.

“It’s funny the things you take for granted sometimes. It’s just so nice to have things that work, to have furniture that isn’t used or donated, to have space to step away and take a break from your day,” Rodriguez says. “We almost don’t want to use it so it doesn’t get dirty – almost.”

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