For the last three months, Michael Norman, 55, has lived in the single room occupancy portion of the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park.
Norman says a lot has changed at the West Cook Y, 255 S. Marion St., since the last time he lived there about three years ago. Most tangible is the compact refrigerator that now comes with the 10-foot by 10-foot room he rents. It has made the biggest difference in his life, he says. And that is just the intention of the YMCA as it reinvests in both its 100+ room SRO facility and in the men who live there.
“It saves me at least $150 a week because I would have to eat at work and after, and that’s $10 a meal,” said Norman. The refrigerator’s freezer allows him to stock up on groceries, so he doesn’t have to make multiple trips to the store.
Norman said the YMCA also did not make air conditioning available to residents in years past. That will change this summer, when the residence program will offer them for a fee.
Residents, until recently, did not have access to all the gyms in the Y as part of their residency. That’s changed, too, Norman said.
Phillip Jimenez, president and CEO of the West Cook YMCA, said the changes are part of the Y’s effort to strengthen its residence program. Preparing a meal and getting a restful night’s sleep – both are essential as a “baseline of human experience,” said Jimenez.
“We are about igniting the spirit of hope, but not in an empty kind of way but in a tangible kind of way,” Jimenez said.
He said most YMCAs in Chicago and elsewhere have closed down their residence programs over the last decade, but the West Cook Y board of directors went in the opposite direction, formally ratifying its commitment to the housing program in the late 2000s.
Jimenez, who joined the Y in March, said under the leadership of his predecessor, Jan Pate, residents were given full access to the gyms. The additional benefits of refrigerators and air conditioning in the rooms are “a game changer” for residents, he said. The dignity that comes along with making your own meal and having a comfortable, air-conditioned room aims to help change the outlook, general health and pocketbook of residents, he said.
“If you’re spending $30 a day, you’re spending more on food than you are on your rent; not only was this a question of nutrition, it was an economic question,” Jimenez said.
The final piece of the puzzle, and Jimenez says the lynchpin of the Y’s residence program, is the establishment of a new case manager position to help residents seeking to move on to economic independence.
Jimenez said he moved to establish the case manager position after visiting Chicago area YMCAs last year with David Parsons, West Cook’s chief operating officer. He said YMCAs in Evanston, Lakeview and Irving Park all have case managers to work with individuals in their residence program.
West Cook hired case manager Chiquita Gardner in December to help work to usher residents toward independence. He said that although some residents have lived at the West Cook Y for more than a decade, it is the goal of the Y to transition people into better housing and work.
“There are going to be folks for whom this is their long-term solution,” Jimenez acknowledged.
The work of building a better residence program is still not complete. West Cook has installed 40 of the refrigerators and aims to put in about 60 or 70 within the next few weeks. The Y’s board of directors has funded the refrigerator and AC program, but Jimenez is still seeking grants and state funding to help defray the cost.
“We’re committed to (the residence program), but we’re definitely seeking out, very aggressively, people, foundations and organizations that want to help fund that,” he said.
Altogether, the new amenities are expected to cost around $20,000. He said the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation contributed $5,000 to assist in launching the case management program and the Manaaki Foundation, a Chicago-area nonprofit, donated $5,000 for capital improvements.