The four founders of Our House are (left to right) Sheryl Bartol, Nehama Morton, Djeorge Leroy, and Melissa Rooth.Submitted photo

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On a quiet, tree-lined north Evanston block with modest houses, a tidy gray clapboard two-flat is both a shelter and a home for five previously homeless young men. Our House is the name of both the physical structure and the ambitious social service program under the umbrella of Evanston’s well established Connections for the Homeless. Our House was launched on Sept. 9, 2015, in response to a significant service gap in Evanston for young homeless at-risk males ages 18-24.

Our House is an impressive work-in-progress hatched by Sheryl Bartol, a participant in Evanston Community Foundation’s Leadership Evanston, along with other Evanston stakeholders, to address the issue of homelessness. As part of her ten-month Leadership Evanston experience that deepened her knowledge of the community and its needs, Ms. Bartol and her teammates learned much about Evanston’s homelessness challenge – worked to create awareness about the issue of youth homelessness. A motivating statistic culled from Mayor Tisdahl’s 2012 Taskforce on Homelessness, was that between 50 and 75 students are homeless each day at Evanston Township High School. A more recent estimate is 100.

Ms. Bartol described the evolution of Our House as a project that moved with remarkable speed once it got going. “Through the project I met Susan Trieschmann, [Executive Director and CEO of Curt’s Café], and she knew I was interested in continuing to work on the homelessness issue after Leadership Evanston ended.”

Ms. Trieschmann was a bridge to Ms. Bartol’s meeting other people passionate about solving the youth homelessness problem. “Susan introduced me to Nehama Morton and Melissa Rooth, both social workers who had been volunteering at Curt’s Café,” said Ms. Bartol. “Nehama had just returned from Israel, where she had visited an inspiringly warm and friendly home established for teen runaways.”

When Ms. Morton shared her impressions with Ms. Trieschmann, the circle widened to include Djeorge Leroy, then the Social Services Director at Curt’s.

Brought together by Ms. Trieschmann, this dynamic foursome became unstoppable in their vision and work plan to open a facility that was more than bricks and mortar.

They started with a blank piece of paper, which turned into an outline and directory of people and agencies and programs involved with youth housing. The group’s phone calls, on-site visits, and conversations over coffee included reaching out to places like The Harbor, Boys Hope/Girls Hope, McGaw Y, Casa Norte, Teen Living Program, and Connections for the Homeless, as well as many other social service groups not directly focused on youth housing.

“We also met with our alderman, the mayor, and others at the City,” said Ms. Bartol.  “Importantly, we also spoke to many of the youth who would potentially be living in the house.  We talked with them about what rules made sense and what their biggest concerns were.” Planning started in August 2014, the house was purchased in May 2015, and in January 2015 Our House was adopted as a program by Connections for the Homeless. The group’s fast-paced work plan included fundraising, scouring locations and properties, identifying a group of financial backers to purchase and renovate the tall two-flat, and developing guidelines and protocols that would be the foundation of the youth housing and mentoring program.

In many ways, the founders say, Our House has been more like a village than a house. The five young men living there are all looking to make positive changes in their lives, and both the structured living arrangement and the Evanston community’s considerable support have contributed to the residents’ progress towards independence and stability. In early 2015, Baird and Warner realtor Emily McClintock donated countless hours to helping the group find the right house in a suitable location – and guiding them through the purchase.  
Since the house opened, the Unitarian Church of Evanston has donated bedding, Saint Athanasius congregants frequently have cooked meals for the residents, Whole Foods has continued to make weekly food donations to Our House, and the Moran Center has provided legal guidance to the young men.

Other community supporters have included Lou Malnati’s and Hillside Pantry, both providing food assistance; and the Youth Job Center, which has arranged three-month internships for the young men in culinary, auto mechanics, and other career pathway sites. Some notable contributions came from Northwestern University’s Brady Scholars Program. For their 2015 service initiative, Brady Scholars selected Our House and subsequently developed an Our House logo, website, and brochure, as well as public programs around the topic of youth homelessness.

“This is not a hotel,” said Melissa Rooth, full-time Program Manager for Our House. “We want it to be like a home, but also a place with expectations, because this isn’t just a place to sleep. There is always an adult on the premises to offer guidance and support.  We’re strict in some ways, but we are always helping the guys work towards their goals.” Getting a high school diploma is non-negotiable, and all five of the young men are employed and are contributing a small amount of money towards rent. Most of the young residents came without medical insurance, a social security card, or a driver’s license; and the goal is to send them out on their own with these important assets, as well as knowledge about tenant rights, budgeting, and community networks.

 Accepting responsibilities is key; there is a weekly schedule at the house by which the young men rotate chores such as washing dishes, taking out trash, watering outside plantings, and sweeping and vacuuming. The staff reminds the young men that to be successfully independent, they need to master skills, act responsibly, and measure actions and decision-making against their goals for the future. The program’s goal is to provide support tailored to each resident’s individual needs, to help each person master life skills that will move him closer to someday owning his own apartment or home and to being a productive member of society. By building trusting relationships with the house staff and the volunteers, the young residents develop stronger social and emotional skills in this transition to independent living.

Twenty-four-year-old Malik Muhammad believes his luck changed last September when Our House opened and he was able to move in. In his senior year at ETHS, his family life had started to unravel, and eventually his family kicked him out of the house. He, his younger brother, and a cousin moved to Oak Park to live with his aunt, and Malik got job working at a Jewel Food Store in Chicago.

“Things were okay but after a while my auntie kicked the three of us out, and things got rough, very rough,” Malik said. “I went to my job at Jewel every day, just like regular, but I didn’t have any place to stay, except for crashing on people’s couches for a few days or weeks. Then I started sleeping on the train, and I saw things I don’t even want to talk about.” He said he used the shelters for showering and cleaning up, but that sleeping there depressed him.

“Even though sleeping on the CTA blue or gray lines was bad,  it was better for me than a shelter.

In the shelters, I felt kind of depressed by what I saw around me, and it brought me down lower. When I was on the train overnight, I’d get off at 6:30 a.m. and see people were
hurrying off to their jobs and stuff. I felt more . . . uplifted.

Then I’d go to Jewel, and that was the good part of my life.

It kept me going.”

The Chicago Tribune’s pop-culture publication, RedEye, reported in their February 8, 2016, online issue, that a 2015 point-in-time count of homeless people in Chicago turned up 6,786. About 30% of those homeless were living in places not meant for sleeping, such as park benches or the CTA.  Like Malik Muhammad, “lots of homeless people choose survival options other than homeless shelters,” the article said.

Betty Bogg, Executive Director of Connections for the Homeless, has a natural affinity for the residents of Our House and understands the “repairing” work that goes into supporting young people in this transitional 18-24 age group. She has more than two decades of management and leadership experience with agencies serving the homeless and understands that the journey from homelessness to stability and independence is difficult. She also is clear that a supportive housing model such as Our House costs communities significantly less than the medical, mental health, police intervention, and incarceration costs associated with people living on the street.

“Many people don’t realize this, but it would take three minimum- wage jobs to just afford renting a modest apartment in Evanston,” Ms. Bogg said. The list of essentials she listed as fundamentals for stabilizing homeless youth are all aspects of the Our House philosophy and work plan and include 1) providing a safe and secure place to live; 2) emphasizing education and employment goals; 3) supporting physical and emotional well-being; 4) encouraging permanent connections and relationships with others. An important aspect of what Our House tries to accomplish with its young residents over the 18-24 months they live there is to help repair family relationships that have been fractured.  

Betty Bogg and the house staff and volunteers at Our House know that stemming chronic homelessness is complicated, but they have a good chance of getting a return on their investment in residents like Malik Muhammad. From the first day he moved into the house, he has been relieved and incredulous that the house and people are there to give him the boost he needs.

“When Emeric [Mazibuke], my Y.O.U. Outreach Case Manager, told me about Our House and gave me the address to go and interview, I thought there was a mistake and I had the wrong address. I called Emeric back to check because the address he sent me to looked much bigger and nicer than I ever expected,” Malik said.  “I can’t really believe that so many strangers – not my real family – have been there to help me. They are people who’ve become my family. All five of us guys have another opportunity to make it with the constant support we get here. Honest, I feel like I am blessed.”