At home in Oak Park, at home at the Y

Having considered eliminating its SRO residence program, YMCA now invests in it

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Lacy Sikora

A few years ago, the future home of the West Cook YMCA was uncertain. With an ongoing capital campaign to relocate in a new building in Forest Park, questions remained regarding the site, finances and the future of the residential program. Little was written in stone yet, but it was generally agreed that the new location would not include a single-room-occupancy (SRO) program. Like countless other YMCAs across the country, the West Cook YMCA was following the trend of getting out of the residential business.

When Jan Pate took over as CEO in July of 2009, the organization was at a crossroad. Within a few months, the board made the decision to remain in its current location on Marion Street in Oak Park, where it has been since 1953. In September of 2009, David Parsons was brought in as COO, and through the combined efforts of Parsons, Pate and the board, the YMCA reconsidered its residential program and the program's importance to the community.

Rethinking the need

Parsons points out that when the YMCA was first founded as the Young Men's Christian Association, it served a very different role than it does today.

"YMCAs had residences from the organization's beginnings as a place for young men from the countryside in England to have a safe place to live when they came to the city. At the time, it was about health and wellness and protecting them from the problems of the city. Over time, it has morphed. It's no longer just for young Christian men. Now it is often used by people going through a divorce or hard times. They don't want, or can't afford, an apartment. The YMCA is like a dorm. You get a room but not a lot of privacy."

YMCAs exist across the country, but more of them are focusing on community services than on SROs. According to Parsons, over the past 20 years, more and more "Y"s are getting out of the residency business for a variety of reasons — whether a perceived lack of need in the community or a perceived bias against residents by other Y members.

"This Y went through a number of years trying to raise money for a new facility without the residences," Parsons said, "which may have changed how we used our residences during that time. When the campaign ended, I came in and Jan came in, and we came to the realization that residences are work, but it's worth it. Our board looked at our residential program and realized we played a role in the low socio-economic community."

Pate, a former village trustee, agrees that Oak Park is an ideal place for a Y with residences. "Two of the pillars of this community are diversity and fair housing, which we really contribute to," she said. "There is a real need in the area for this kind of housing. We have a waiting list. We are a safety net between people and homelessness."

Emotional transformation

During the capital campaign time period when the move to a new location seemed imminent, the residences were pushed to the back burner. According to Parsons, once the board and leaders made the decision to stay at the Marion Street location, the residential program received some much-needed attention.

Four-year resident David Holmquist noticed the change. "There's been a kind of wholesale turnover of management since I moved in," he said. "The current management is as attentive to residents as it is to members. There's been a lot more outreach to the residents."

Parsons says the change was deliberate. "There's been a transformation in our residents. We treat them like they are our highest-paying members, which they are. We encourage them to interact and be part of the community. They work out here and are certainly part of the coffee klatches in the morning."

Shortly after Parsons arrived on staff, they started offering coffee to residents in the morning in order to foster a community feel.

"It took a while," he said, "and we just started with coffee, which led to working out in the facilities. I believe the residents are happier and better able to go out in the community. Jeff Williams, our residential director has been here about 20 years, and he really does a good job with our residents."

Longtime resident Maurice Williams (no relation) credits the residential director for the roof over his head. After a stroke and hip replacement, Williams finds it hard to be mobile, but he was welcome at the Y.

"I've been here over 10 years. The Y means a lot to me. It's a place to stay and get yourself together. They gave me a room when I got out of the hospital. Jeff told me they wouldn't put me out in the cold, and it's the only home I know now."

Parsons feels the Y fills a role in the community that can't be overstated.

"There is a need here for this type of residence. We fill the gap for those who can't afford an apartment or long-term lease. We also have a relationship with West Suburban PADS to help bridge the gap between being homeless and getting [a permanent residence]. We give them 10 of our 128 rooms, and one room for a caseworker's office."

Physical transformation

While the Y addressed the needs of the community and the emotional needs of its residents, it also had to grapple with the physical needs of residents. Parsons is particularly well-suited to comment on living conditions in the residences. When hired by the Y, he moved here from New Orleans, but didn't want to find a new home until he sold his house in New Orleans. He lived in the residences for one year.

 He notes that Henton Hall, a gathering room named after a former resident, is an important part of the change.

"It's just a room with a TV, microwave, vending machines and air conditioning. When I first came here, it was only open certain hours. We leave it open all the time now — another small, wonderful touch to make sure it feels like home. The better we treat these gentlemen, the better things work."

Addressing another need, the Y has begun the slow process of updating the rooms. Each small room has a single bed and a bureau or desk. Once painted institutional white, the rooms had stained carpeting and were hot year-round. With the help of board member, Jim Lencioni, president/senior architect of Aria Group Architects Inc., more hospitable colors were chosen for repainting the rooms, and as funds allow, rooms are being updated with laminate flooring, blinds, and ceiling fans. Parsons believes that if the rooms look nicer, the residents will treat them with more respect.

Looking forward

Jane Wood, chair of the board's Residence Committee, said one remaining issue for is food.

"Our residents don't have any way to keep food in their rooms," she said. "Our location is close to fast food restaurants and expensive grocery stores, so it is hard for our residents to have a healthy lifestyle. It will take a nice, tidy sum of money to put fridges in all the rooms, but we're a charitable organization and hope that donors will meet that need."

In the future, Parsons hopes they can ensure that all 128 rooms are updated, and he would love to be able to provide residents with air-conditioning units as well as small refrigerators. Pate agrees.

"The efforts of Jeff Williams and David coming on really changed how we treat our residents," Pate said. "We want to address the physical conditions of the rooms first and then our next big vision would be in community learning. It would be great to develop a job-training center for the residents to help them find new or better employment."

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