Low-income housing lost if YMCA moves

Y officials say it's part of a national trend, shelter directors fear the worst

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By SETH STERN

Though officials from both Forest Park and the West Cook YMCA seem devoted to moving the Y to the Altenheim property in Forest Park, one group of local residents is most likely hoping the deal falls through. That's because if the Y does move to Forest Park, or anywhere else for that matter, the new facility will not include any Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing units. The current Oak Park location has 128 such units, about 110 of which are typically occupied.

The rooms, which YMCA President Scott Gaalaas describes as similar to college dorm rooms, offer low-income, temporary housing for a rent of $110 per week.

"The average stay is about 3-6 months. The residents are mostly low-income and might have lost a job, gotten divorced or separated ... it's a good place to stay while in transition," said Gaalaas.

It should come as no surprise that SRO housing is not included in the site plan for a Forest Park YMCA, as YMCAs nationwide have been moving away from the practice for quite a while.

According to Arnold Collins, associate director of Media Relations for YMCA of the USA, the YMCA began constructing SRO units in the 1880s to house people who came to cities from rural areas looking for work.

By 1950, 670 of the 1,688 YMCAs in the country had SRO housing, providing 66,959 beds. By the 1970s, however, the primary tenants shifted from rural migrants to the homeless and troubled youth.

YMCAs then had to hire additional staff members with the training necessary to deal with these individuals, leading many to decide that such services were best left to more specialized agencies.

Though Collins said that each YMCA makes its own decisions independent of the national organization, Gaalaas said that there has been a consensus for the last 40 years that it's time for YMCAs to "get out of the hotel business."

In 2004, only 81 of the 2,594 facilities in the country still had SRO housing, though that number is up slightly from 77 in 2003.

Gaalaas said Forest Park officials requested that the Forest Park site plan not include SRO housing, though Mayor Anthony Calderone said he had been under the impression that SRO housing "was no longer part of the YMCA's mission" and had never been an option.

While some might see the change as inevitable considering the national trend, local advocates for the homeless are concerned that the elimination of SRO housing will land more people in shelters or on the streets.

"Those people are going to be extremely hard pressed to find housing in Oak Park or nearby. These are Oak Park citizens," said Lynda Schueler, executive director of West Suburban PADS, which provides shelter for the homeless at the St. Bernardine Convent in Forest Park and several other area locations. "When you talk about displacing a community like that, that's huge."

Schueler said that though the SRO housing is mostly transitional, some residents have lived there for decades. In addition, she noted, PADS often refers individuals who are transitioning out of homelessness to the YMCA as a place to get stabilized before finding permanent housing.

The impact, she said, will likely be intensified by the recent renovation of the Rich Port YMCA in LaGrange, which reopened minus its SRO housing units on Sept. 30.

Molly Salisbury, executive director of BEDS, a shelter in LaGrange, said that one of the places where many residents of that SRO housing unit were relocated was the Oak Park YMCA.

"This is going to be tough?#34;really tough?#34;for people transitioning out of homelessness," she said, adding that it is difficult to measure the effect that the closing of the LaGrange SRO units would have since it was so recent but that the poorest would likely be hit the hardest.

"The seniors were placed first?#34;there is housing for seniors. People who had some money and sources of income were pretty easily placed. The people whose income was tentative and who were rebuilding were the worst off."

Relocation efforts, she said, were handled by a relocation specialist hired by the YMCA.

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Gaalaas said the YMCA's relocation committee would be formed to address the SRO housing issue as part of its exit plan. There would be no substantial gap in services, he said, as the current YMCA would remain open until about a week before the move, and residents would receive at least six months' notice.

Schueler said she hopes the Village of Oak Park will explore possible ways to keep the SRO housing open even after the Y leaves town. "I'd love to see the village take a stand on preserving that building and approach a developer who would consider keeping it in place as an SRO," she said.

Even if this is not possible, she noted, "It could be converted into low-income affordable housing. ... There are developers out there who will do affordable housing. It's just a matter of incentives."

Still, she said, she realizes such ideas are likely to face opposition from the not-in-my-backyard crowd, who, she said, often make the mistake of equating low-income housing with public housing and the high crime it is often associated with.

Gaalaas said that there has not been much of a crime problem among the current SRO residents, who undergo a screening, including a criminal background check before being admitted to the drug- and alcohol-free SRO units.

He acknowledged that local communities would have to pick up the slack once the housing units closed. "There's a lack of low-income housing for many years in these communities. It's certainly an issue that the community as a whole should be looking at very carefully."

Representatives from the Village of Oak Park said it was premature to discuss those plans at this point as the YMCA move has not yet been finalized.

Chicago-area YMCAs that still have SRO housing include the Leaning Tower YMCA in Niles, the Lawson YMCA in downtown Chicago and the Irving Park YMCA, according to Salisbury.

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