In a village like Oak Park where, according the online site Rent Jungle, the average monthly rent at the end of last year was $1,604, what do you do if your total income working at the minimum wage for a month is $2,240?
Renting for $500 a month, the 90 SROs (single-room occupancy) available at the West Cook YMCA at 255 S. Marion St. are an option if you are a single man needing affordable housing while you are making a transition in your life.
Brian (not his real name) said that the SRO at the YMCA in which he is presently living has been a needed stopgap which has allowed him to stay off the street.
“I am a retired veteran,” he said. “Living at the Y saved me from the cold and saved me from being homeless. It saved me from living with someone else and dealing with their rules.”
Phil Jimenez, the West Cook YMCA’s CEO, made a point of saying that Brian’s situation illustrates the role the nonprofit plays in the community-wide effort to address the issue of homelessness. The role of the Y, he said, is “upstream” from homelessness.
“We are not a homeless shelter,” he said. “Our role is homeless prevention. Becoming homeless is a process. You don’t go from a home in River Forest to living on the street overnight. Housing Forward serves the people who are downstream, i.e., who are already homeless. The position the Y has is to prevent a man who is at risk from going over the margin.”
The TMCA and Housing Forward had a partnership until about three years ago in which the Y provided 10 rooms to Housing Forward (then called PADS) to men whom Housing Forward had selected. A full time AmeriCorps member offered onsite case management services to help the clients transition to permanent, independent housing.
Jimenez said that his nonprofit backed out of the partnership because “in 2015 we began to see that this Y was not outfitted to address mental illness or substance abuse. We were not outfitted to be a homeless shelter where individuals cannot pay the rent.”
He contends that the main issue that every organization has to address is the question of whom they can serve and whom they cannot serve.
“It’s a difficult question,” he said, “because it’s hard for me to say no to people. But if you don’t have the discipline to be truthful about what you can and cannot do, the entire organization suffers.”
Jimenez and the board of directors concluded that what the West Cook YMCA could do well was to provide, in the words of the Y’s website, “secure housing for men transitioning between housing, not wanting the commitment of an apartment or home, living temporarily in the community for school or employment, or simply desiring an affordable, safe place to live.”
Paige Clincy, West Cook YMCA’s residence case manager, interviews an average of five men a month who are applying for one of the SRO rooms.
“The main focus of the interview with potential residents,” she said, “is to assess if the program is a good fit for the applicant’s needs. We also want to understand what brought the applicant to the program and begin to develop an individual service plan for residents to get on track with the goals they set out to achieve.”
She explained that the purpose of the requirement of a minimum monthly income of $1,500 is to make sure that the $500-per-month rent does not exceed one-third of their total income.
Jimenez said that one of his big challenges regarding the SRO program is changing the public’s perception of the men who live at the Y. Clincy offered the following as examples of men who are not right on the verge of becoming homeless.
Cleotis acknowledged that some of the residents are “down on their luck” but that he personally has lived at the Y for 18 years, because he “likes the access [to the village] and accommodations offered at the Y.”
Tom, who retired after working for the CTA for 41 years, said, “Living at the Y has given me the opportunity to save money and focus on my financial goals.”
When the Rev. Dean Leuking came to the area 66 years ago to be the assistant pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, he stayed at the YMCA until the rest of his family arrived to join him.
“We want people to think of our residence program as a resource within the community that can help provide the stability and assistance in which our residents are searching for, if they stick to the program,” said Clincy
The West Cook YMCA has closed off the third floor of the building, which contains 37 more single occupancy rooms, because the demand for what the nonprofit feels it can offer does not warrant keeping them open.
Jimenez said that he is entertaining several scenarios regarding use of the space, including a place for patients after they are a discharged from a healthcare system but aren’t ready to go home or office space for other nonprofits who don’t have enough in their own facilities.
With the top floor closed off, there are 90 rooms available to men seeking housing, with about 60 currently occupied. And, many of the tenants have lived there quite a while. According to Jimenez, about one-third of the residents have lived there more than 10 years with another one-third living there between three and 10 years.
One resident has called the West Cook YMCA home for three decades.
For the $500 a month rent, residents receive a room with a twin-size bed, dresser, desk, chair, personal refrigerator, Direct TV basic service, a private telephone, membership to the Y at no extra cost, weekly linen service, access to coin operated washers and dryers and bathrooms down the hall.