On Tuesday, La Casa Norte, an organization serving homeless families and youth in Chicago, opened a new $20 million dollar state-of-the-art facility in Humboldt Park.
Eight years in the making, the new facility, at 3533 W. North Ave., will include housing units for homeless youth and families, a youth drop-in center, a health care center, a nutrition center, food pantry, and homelessness prevention services.
The project is the swan song of Sol Flores, La Casa Norte’s executive director, who will be wrapping up her time with the organization and joining the Pritzker administration as deputy governor.
Morning Shift‘s Jenn White sat down with Flores about the impact she hopes the new facility will have and her plans on joining state government.
Jenn White: When you had a vision at the very beginning of this whole journey, did you imagine that it would grow to this point?
Sol Flores: No, not at all. I grew up in a family of service here in Chicago. My family is Puerto Rican and they came from the island in the 1950s. My grandparents were foster care parents, and my aunt and mom were involved in the peace-war movement and union movements … so service was always a big part of my family. [But] I didn’t think that I would do it professionally and I couldn’t see the pathway. Our founding board members and people in this close-knit group of folks, though, were so passionate and committed that that was a moment in life that I talk about “stepping out in faith” and not necessarily knowing what the future would look like. But I give my all to things, 110 percent, and we’re very resourceful. Over the last 16 years, what we’ve really done well is really listen to our clients’ wants, needs, and desires; listen to their strengths and challenges that they’re confronting.
Jenn White: Talk about the new facility and the kind of growth it allows for your organization.
Sol Flores: This part of West Humboldt Park is actually a food desert. So the type of fresh market pantry and cafe that’s going to be in the new space is going to allow us to not just bring fresh produce to people but also nutrition education. We know that sometimes folks who are struggling to make ends meet will eat poor-calorie or calorie-deficit foods. And so we want to make sure that they’re having what‘s appropriate for them, for their culture, for their families.
[We’ll also have] a youth drop-in center. We operate two of them right now, one in the South Side in the Back of the Yards, and one in Logan Square that we just moved here. It’s a space where young people between the ages of 16-25 can come in off the street, no questions asked. You can just come in and — when it was extremely cold — you can get something hot to eat, you can get on a computer, you can connect to services, we can connect you to housing.
And what we really love — the crown jewel on this — is the top three floors. It’s 25 new apartments. And the specific type of housing model is called “supportive housing.” And that means it’s dedicated to very, very vulnerable people. The definition we use is “chronic homelessness” — that means they have a mental and/or physical disability and they’ve had multiple episodes of being homeless on the streets in one year. And if not for this type of housing intervention, they could be institutionalized, incarcerated, dead, or children removed from their care. So we’re really excited about being able to bring in 25 new households literally off the streets and shelters.
Jenn White: One of the interesting things about your organization is the fact that you do focus on wrap-around services. It’s not just about a bed for the night or a hot meal. It’s about trying to treat the whole person. Why is that model so important to addressing homelessness?
Sol Flores: I think we understand that someone’s gotta get off the streets. But then we know what are the hierarchy of needs: We need food, we need clothing, we need shelter. And then once you get past that basic sort of knee-jerk, then it’s about our social and emotional needs, it’s our academic needs, it’s our education needs. So particularly when we’re working with young people or families with young children, we know that this is our future, and so wrapping that up and allowing them to pick and choose what services in what point in their life is important to them we think is the only way to go.
Jenn White: So you’re making this transition to deputy governor in the Pritzker administration. Talk about the role you’re taking on there and what you’ll be focusing on.
Sol Flores: Gov. Pritzker has set up his executive office with four different deputy governors, each of us focused on a different portfolio of work, and my area is going to be health and human services. So really thinking about the key agencies in this state that work from cradle to grave, working with children, families, our most vulnerable people across the state. And my role is going to be working with the governor’s cabinet, to make sure we’re breaking down silos, we’re working toward the same goals, we’re helping to rebuild the human services infrastructure, and we’re showing up across the state in every community, listening to them and their local solutions and challenges, and then figuring out how state and government is their partner.
I have spent a long time at La Casa Norte and it’s been my greatest honor and privilege. I’ve grown up there. I’ve learned so much from our clients and my colleagues who’ve really taught me so much. And I declared I wanted to give my life over to service, and the governor is offering me an opportunity to do more of that. So I’m still going to be doing the mission of La Casa Norte, just not in those walls.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
In the interest of transparency, Chicago Public Media (CPM) reminds its audience that we receive philanthropic support from The Pritzker Foundation. JB Pritzker, who is Illinois governor, is not involved in The Pritzker Foundation and does not contribute to it. He and his wife lead a separate philanthropic foundation, the Pritzker Family Foundation, from which CPM has never received any funding.