The Night Ministry’s “The Crib” Designed with Both Its Clients and Community in Mind October 13, 2021

For the better part of five decades, The Night Ministry has met Chicagoans experiencing homelessness where they are, offering support to meet their immediate physical, emotional, and social needs and connecting them with housing, health care, and other resources designed to end their homelessness. It’s a mission that began with one employee – Rev. Tom Behrens – traversing the city each night to find and help those living on the street while working out of the trunk of his car.  

In a Nutshell

What: A newly renovated facility for The Night Ministry that consolidated several locations into one, provided the organization with ample space to serve youth experiencing homelessness and those in need of medical care who are living on the street, and revitalized a building that was underutilized for decades – all of which was the result of extensive community engagement and an inclusive design process that considered the needs of clients, staff, neighbors, and other community stakeholders. 
Sector: Housing, Youth Services
Location: Chicago, IL (Bucktown)
Size: 21,800 square feet
Cost: $5.6 million (long-term lease and building renovations)
Funding Source: Capital campaign
Design: Wheeler Kearns Architects
Construction: Bulley & Andrews
IFF Support: Financial feasibility study, site search, predevelopment services, owner’s representation
IFF Staff Leads: Dominic LoGalbo, Director of Consulting for Design and Construction; James Ratner, Senior Project Manager
Impact: 21 emergency beds created for youth experiencing homelessness

Several years later, Behrens encountered a young person during his nightly rounds that made him acutely aware of the scarcity of services for youth experiencing homelessness in Chicago, prompting the organization to expand its focus to include programming for youth. Fast forward almost 40 years, and The Night Ministry still has the same mission – but with deeper programming and stronger infrastructure.   

In August 2020, The Night Ministry moved into a newly renovated, transit-accessible facility in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that has greatly enhanced the quality of services the organization provides to clients, while also increasing its efficiency by consolidating several locations into one. The 21,800-square-foot space, which is leased and spread across a four-story building, houses the organization’s administrative offices, is the home base for its mobile Outreach and Health Ministry program, and, perhaps most importantly, was designed to provide emergency shelter for up to 21 clients between the ages of 18 and 24 through The Crib. One of The Night Ministry’s housing programs for youth, The Crib provides 200 young people each year with a safe place to sleep and supportive services to help them transition out of homelessness.   

In the new facility in Bucktown, The Crib features a multi-purpose room which can be used for dining, group activities, and recreation; a dorm room with beds; multiple showers and washrooms; a large kitchen outfitted to cook breakfast and dinner for program participants; a laundry room with two sets of washers and dryers; and a lounge with computers.    

Prior to the move, The Crib operated out of a single 900-square-foot room in the basement of a church in the Lakeview neighborhood, where guests ate, slept, and participated in activities offered through the program. The multi-use function of the room limited the services and amenities that could be offered; guests slept on mats on the floor that needed to be moved when the space was being used during the day and, while there were shower and bathroom facilities, they were insufficient for the number of people using them each day.  

Before and After

The Crib


  • Dining, sleeping, and activities took place in one 900-square-foot basement room
  • Guests slept on mats on the floor
  • Limited shower and bathroom facilities

At 1735 N. Ashland:

  • Quiet dorm room with beds
  • Dedicated dining room
  • Large multi-purpose space
  • Multiple private bathrooms and showers
  • Youth Outreach Team on site to provide case management and other support

Health Outreach Program


  • Bus stored overnight miles away from Health Outreach staff
  • No dedicated loading and unloading space

At 1735 N. Ashland:

  • Overnight parking for the Bus and other Outreach & Health Ministry vehicles
  • Dedicated loading dock
  • Enhanced storage for medicine and medical supplies

Central Administration


  • Meeting and training spaces doubled as sorting and storage areas for in-kind donations after 100% increase in staff size from 2002 to 2020

At 1735 N. Ashland:

  • Ample square footage for present and future staffing and operational needs
  • Expanded storage area for in-kind donations such as clothing, hygiene kits, and sack suppers
  • Increased space for holding volunteer trainings, staff gatherings, board meetings, community events, and more

“Young people at The Crib now have a space that has been built deliberately and exclusively for their use,” says The Night Ministry Senior Vice President Erin Ryan. “That’s had a huge impact on the quality of life for our clients and has also enhanced their ability to engage in programming more deeply, participate in case management, and reach goals like permanent housing and employment.”

Moving into the new facility has also been a boon for the organization’s Outreach and Health Ministry program, which brings free health care, clothing, and supportive services to seven underserved Chicago neighborhoods six days per week in The Night Ministry’s Health Outreach Bus. Operating out of the same North Side facility where the organization’s administrative offices were previously located, there was no dedicated loading and unloading space for the bus, which also had to be stored miles away from the location each night. With a new loading dock at its Bucktown headquarters and ample space to park the bus each day, valuable time is being saved that can be redeployed for services in The Night Ministry’s priority communities.   

The relocation of the organization’s administrative offices to the new facility has been similarly beneficial. Between 2002 and 2020, the organization’s staff size and operating budget had doubled. During that time, meeting and training spaces also doubled as sorting and storage areas for in-kind donations. With increased square footage in the new Bucktown facility, the organization has ample room for current and future operational needs, as well as the space necessary to hold volunteer trainings, staff gatherings, board meetings, and community events.         

“The biggest thing that I notice every day, even a year after moving in, is the natural light that we have in the building,” Ryan says. “There are huge windows all along the Western facade of the building on every floor, and, on the first and second floors, we have windows around the whole building. It is incredible to be engaged with what’s happening outside. It seems like a small thing, but natural light was one of the things our staff wanted most when we were planning for the facility, and I think we’ve delivered on that more than anybody could have anticipated.”  

To find its new facility and renovate it to the organization’s specifications, The Night Ministry worked closely with IFF’s real estate team in Illinois. Over the course of several years, the IFF team completed a financial feasibility study examining the organization’s capacity to purchase or lease a new space, supported a site search to identify the location, provided predevelopment services to outline the renovation scope and estimate costs, conduct site due diligence, initiate preliminary design, and served as the owner’s representative during the buildout of the new facility. The project continued a long partnership between IFF and The Night Ministry that has included four loans since 1991 as well as several engagements with the real estate team.   

“We are experts in designing and delivering services and programs for people, and we’re focused on achieving our mission every day,” Ryan says. “We are not experts in real estate and construction. Going into this project, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. It was invaluable to have somebody from IFF there to help us imagine what was possible, to discern what was within reach for us, and to be sure all of our needs were being met in an affordable way as the intermediary between our organization and the owner of the building.”   

We are experts in designing and delivering services and programs for people, and we’re focused on achieving our mission every day. We are not experts in real estate and construction. Going into this project, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. It was invaluable to have somebody from IFF there to help us imagine what was possible, to discern what was within reach for us, and to be sure all of our needs were being met in an affordable way as the intermediary between our organization and the owner of the building.

Embracing Inclusive Design

From the very start of the search to find a new location, The Night Ministry committed to extensive community engagement and an inclusive design process. Soon after identifying the Bucktown facility, the organization began working closely with neighborhood groups to address any potential concerns about The Night Ministry operating in the community.   

In the ensuing months, the organization participated in formal community meetings organized by the Alderperson, discussions with the local School Advisory Board, and individual conversations with residents and other community stakeholders. In advance of the zoning hearing that would determine whether The Night Ministry could operate in the location, the organization identified all homes and businesses in the neighborhood that could be impacted by the move into Bucktown and went door-to-door to provide information about its work to residents and business owners and to answer any questions they had.   

This level of engagement was vital, as the facility is located in a neighborhood in transition where long-term residents have well-founded concerns that new development will marginalize their best interests. This concern is the result of a history of trauma in the community: first when a freeway split it in half when the Kennedy expressway was built, then the loss of industry in the neighborhood, followed by several decades of deteriorating community assets. By modeling a development process built on listening, trust, and responsiveness, the organization earned the trust of the community and built lasting relationships with residents.   

The facility has restored an important anchor in the urban fabric of the neighborhood. Its new use is a source of activity in the community, brings a needed service to Bucktown, and has positioned The Night Ministry to achieve greater impact through our work to support those experiencing homelessness.

“Our staff developed strong, collaborative relationships with our neighbors because of the deliberative community engagement we committed to before moving into the building,” says Ryan. “That not only resulted in a positive outcome for our project, but has continued to pay dividends since we relocated. A local artist donated original prints to the shelter; a hair salon in the neighborhood provides free haircuts to our clients; a neighbor has hired several of our clients for her business in North Lawndale, and several others have expressed interest in volunteering.”  

While The Night Ministry empowered the community throughout the development process, it also empowered its staff and clients to contribute to the success of the project. Front-line staff were asked to direct how the new facility would be organized to best support operations, while a leadership group of past and current clients reviewed how the emerging design could be tailored to best suit their needs. As input was received, the organization’s plans for the space evolved to incorporate feedback from both groups. Once the design was finalized, inclusive bidding practices ensured that minority- and women-owned contractors had the opportunity to join the project team. After construction was completed, a community-based art program was engaged to teach young artists how to work collaboratively to express a client’s vision with their creative talents.   

Together, these decisions resulted in a more thoughtful, useful end product, and one that is meeting the needs of everyone The Night Ministry included in the development process.     

“The facility has restored an important anchor in the urban fabric of the neighborhood,” Ryan says. “Its new use is a source of activity in the community, brings a needed service to Bucktown, and has positioned The Night Ministry to achieve greater impact through our work to support those experiencing homelessness. The process we went through to get to this point was unique, and I wouldn’t want to do a project like this any other way.” 

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