Back on ground

After her short-but-intense campaign in the Democratic primary to represent Illinois’ fourth Congressional District, Sol Flores returns to her roots as an affordable housing advocate.

by Vangmayi Parakala 
Medill Reports

Earlier this year, Sol Flores ran an intense 112-day campaign in the Democratic primary for Illinois’s fourth Congressional District Seat.

It was the same seat that Luis Gutierrez held for 13 straight terms, and the same seat political heavyweight Jesus “Chuy” Garcia also was contesting. She lost.

But Flores captured the imagination of both her constituency and political commentators alike—especially due to the sort of varied experiences she brought to the campaign, ranging from her candid #MeToo childhood story, to her profile as a middle-class, single, working woman of color. “We need more women at the table,” Flores says, shaking back her tight curls. But what she shaped and informed her participation in the campaign most was her work and experience as an affordable-housing activist in Chicago.

For over 15 years, Flores has been running La Casa Norte, a non-profit that tackles youth and family homelessness in the city. The low-ceiling office on McLean Avenue is a picture of activity. But that isn’t because there are many people busily buzzing around. Boxes of clothes, presumably for charity, lay stacked in different corners of the lobby. The waiting area has a couple boxes of condoms and other supplies promoting sexual health awareness: this office also serves as a walk-in center for homeless young people.

It is the sort of ordered mess that comes from not merely working or going in-and-out of somewhere, but from really inhabiting that space. At one corner of this, is the hallway that leads to Flores’s office.

Inside, she sits for this conversation at a small roundtable away from her big L-shaped desk, which looks busy, but is open and friendly—perhaps a reflection of its owner. It is overrun with papers, but there are colorful post-its and notes peeking out.

It has been a busy time at La Casa Norte, especially because the end of Flores’s political campaign and her active return to her social advocacy work comes at a crucial juncture for the non-profit.

Last July, the city of Chicago greenlit La Casa Norte’s affordable housing project in Humboldt Park. Called Pierce House, the 25-unit project “is 45% complete,” and on its way to being opened in September. “The overall project is called The Foundation Project,” says Flores, of which Pierce House is only one part.

Poring over the building plan between sips of water, she shows how the building will have a café for people to get hot meals, a food pantry, and a drop-in center like the one they have at this office and in their facility in Chicago’s South Side. Additionally, an entire floor will be open for La Casa Norte’s clients to meet with their social service representatives in a place that is “respectable and provides dignity,” she adds.

In this interview she talks about the stunning $20 million budget for this initiative, the challenges that advocates and non-profits face in assisting the homeless, and how her campaign experience will influence and inform her social-sector work going forward.

 

What are La Casa Norte’s biggest challenges in finding and reaching out to at-risk youth?

Our target populations are unaccompanied, homeless youth between the ages of 16-25, and homeless families with at least one child under the age of 18 in their custody. Our biggest challenge is to try and meet them where they are—to catch them before they become too desperate, before they become victims, or before they are preyed upon.

The other challenge is to get them to know about our services, as well as what’s available to them in the city, in terms of [social] services.

Do you have volunteers actually going out on the streets and finding people and talking to them about this? How does this happen on a day-to-day level?

We meet young people and families a lot of different ways. One is by word of mouth, and that’s the best way. Second is through all of our various coalitions, like the Latino Policy Forum’s Housing ‘Acuerdo’, the Chicago Continuum of Service Providers Commission, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to name a few. Public officials and the police also bring people in or call in about someone.

Over the last ten years, social media has changed a lot of that as well. People get in touch with us via Facebook mostly, but they’ll also email us occasionally us they need help or know someone who needs help.

We do some street outreach too, but that’s more limited. We don’t have a secure funding source for that we count on some of those other methods to fill our programs.

You’d mentioned that you were proud of how your campaign managed to elevate the narrative around homelessness. How do you think you did that?

One thing that I did in the campaign was to point to very specific already-active policies and say that they need to be more aligned with each other to create a stronger safety net against homelessness. This includes affordable and accessible healthcare, access to living wage jobs and pay-equity, and then affordable housing. People often see these things as kind of separate. That was the narrative that I helped string together and elevate. I think all of that, when connected, can end homelessness.

There are reports noting that LGBTQ youth are affected by homelessness about twice more than their cis-gender peers. How do you work with LGBTQ youth differently that you do when assisting other ‘at-risk’ youth?

We have worked with young people who identify as being LGBTQ since the beginning of our existence. One of the challenges for us in mentoring, advocating for, and providing counseling and for this population, is that along with their housing and stability we are also dealing with their grieving or loss, or process of discovery regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity. So, it’s another layer of work to do with these young people.

In addition to helping them feel comfortable and empowered, and not victimized, we also help LGTBQ youth go through the process of changing their government-issued-ID-names if they need it. With transgender youth, we try to make sure they get the right sort of treatment when they visit medical doctors, or even just making sure they’re connecting with clinics who can help them in their transitioning process.

But trying to assist LGBTQ youth also means that our staff and our spaces and policies are LGBTQ-friendly and -affirming. It’s important for us to understand the nuances of LGBTQ community subcultures too. We also ensure that we have staff members who identify as LGBTQ. It’s done partially to demonstrate to young people that they can see someone that looks like them.

Is the Pierce House project that you’re now building in Humboldt Park one of La Casa Norte’s first big projects? 

The model that we are building right now on North Avenue is called Permanent Supportive Housing. We’ve done this for the past seven years, but we’ve just done it in a scattered site model, which means we have apartments scattered throughout different blocks.

What’s new with this project is that we’re going to have all 25 apartments in one space.

Talk about the Pierce House’s big $20 million budget. There was some chatter and backlash initially about how justified that and the project’s focus on aesthetics was, especially since this is supposed to be an affordable housing project.

Yeah, I mean there’s a range of thinking on this. One is that ‘could you have gotten more units out of it had you not had certain elements in it’. Or, ‘why does it have to look so nice?’

I can’t press upon you enough that when folks come into the space, and they’re in crisis, and its beautiful they could begin to feel calm and safe and respected. Mostly a lot of our clients have been living on the streets, or in their cars, or in some shelters that aren’t as nice as this. We want to change that narrative. Poor people deserve beautiful aesthetic too.

The other thing is that we want to make sure that our neighbors recognize that [vulnerable or stigmatized] people are coming here to be healed and to thrive. It’s important that they recognize how this can add to the beautification of this space.

[In specific, this] was a blighted building that was there for decades and would’ve still been there had we not purchased it and rehabilitated it. We are contributing to the landscape of this community. And that [vulnerable] folks will be able to come to this neighborhood, this block, twenty years from now, when I’m no longer here.

What is the process of selection for people that will come and live here?  

Anyone can come for the various services in the building. But for the people that will live here—there’s a centralized waitlist in Chicago, and we’ll pull people off that waitlist. For the [one bedroom and two bedroom we look for] a head of household with at least one child under 18 in their custody. For studio apartments, the eligibility is single youth, between 18-25. They have a choice too, they don’t have to say yes to us.

Given that you’ve been in this for over a decade now, how friendly do you think housing policies in Illinois—or even in the U.S. as a whole—are for sections such as the ones you’re working with right now?

I think since I started this work, both Illinois and the federal government are less silo-ed in our policy. Which means healthcare is in lockstep with housing is in lockstep with workforce development is in lockstep with education. Are we perfect? No. But we are moving towards that. The job of the Interagency Counsel on Homelessness set up under Bush II [was effective] is to gather all the various agencies at the same table and make sure they’re talking and make sure that they’re all working towards the same end.

While we don’t have that in Illinois, we are certainly bringing all the folks to the table at the city level with the City Department Family Services, which makes sure that all of the city’s sister agencies spend their homelessness services dollars in concert with one another.

There’s a saying called “no wrong door”, which means that however you enter the system—whether through child welfare, or through housing, or through healthcare, or you told your social worker at school or your doctor that you’re homeless—you should be able to have expedited information to help lift you up using this safety net system.

How has your experience in the campaign influenced or changed the way you now work with La Casa Norte now?

Reflections that I have in coming back post campaign are that it’s more important than ever that we talk about poverty, about young people and families in crisis. And that we are talking about it from a democratic and progressive perspective.

In the campaign, I chose to be publicly exposed and vulnerable and chose to share my personal #MeToo story. I hadn’t shared that even at work [before]. It’s made me think about how being candid and transparent and vulnerable allow for more advancements, and what else can we do either in our interpersonal and professional relationships or in policy and development.

Also, I say this kind of cheeky way—but I worked really hard really fast for that short amount of time, so I kind of think like, “if I can do that, what’s next?!”

Photo at top: Sol Flores captured her constituency’s attention due to her varied experiences and campaign pitches, ranging from her candid #MeToo childhood story, to her profile as a middle-class, single, working woman of color. (Image courtesy: www.standwithsol.com)