Young parents at risk of living on the streets have found a safe place at the new Transformation Center in Chicago.

The $12.5 million development tackles the unique needs of parents 18 to 24 years old by providing them and their children with stable, affordable housing and key services.

The 40-unit project was developed by New Moms, Inc., a nonprofit that is the largest housing provider for young homeless and at-risk parents in Chicago. The organization’s Transformation Center replaces the group’s 23-unit facility.

“We saw a growing need,” says Audalee McLoughlin, president and CEO of New Moms. “We tracked turn-away rates for years, and in 2006 we turned away 900 who called us for housing. That was the highest year we ever saw, but we had been watching the number grow and grow. That was the launch point for building a new development.”

Although the new building nearly doubles the number of New Moms’ housing units, it is still far below the staggering demand. About 2,500 applications were submitted for the 17 available units.

One of the lucky ones is 24-year-old Jaquetta, who recently moved into one of the apartment with her infant son. Jaquetta, who works in a drug store, says she “has learned to become a better person and a better mother through New Moms. The staff helps you, but each participant has to be involved in their own life” to make change happen.

Twenty-year-old Nicole also landed a spot in the new building. She calls the staff “her family.” Working and raising a young daughter, she is aiming to get her GED, with plans to pursue a career in nursing.

The high number of applicants is stunning yet all too familiar to McLoughlin. She cites a 2005 study that estimated that there were approximately 2,000 homeless or at-risk adolescent parents in the Chicago area on any given night.

“To be honest with you, I think it could be much higher than that,” she says. “The reason I say that is because homeless youth do not want to be identified as homeless, especially if they are parenting. They have this misconception that if they accept help from the system, their children will be taken away from them. They don’t want to lose their children.”

Improving a neighborhood, changing lives

The Transformation Center is built on a site that used to house a Chicago police station. The building was abandoned, leaving the gritty West Side property available for redevelopment for several years. The city eventually donated the site to New Moms for a dollar.

The organization demolished the original building and cleaned up the land to make way for the new center. The development features 30 studios and 10 one-bedroom apartments. All come furnished.

“Every time there is a lease signing, there are tears,” says McLoughlin, who joined New Moms in 1997 and has led the organization since 2005. She comes from a career in banking and human resources. More than an administrator, she can relate to the residents having been a teen mom herself. She knows what it’s like to have to grow up fast.

Because her residents have had such unstable housing during their lives, they are used to describing a place as “where I stay” instead of “where I live.” That’s changing. For many, the Transformation Center is the first place they can call home.

The apartments operate with the help of the project-based Sec. 8 program, so resident pay just 30 percent of their income toward rent.

McLoughlin says the ideal length of stay will be about two years, but that’s not a set deadline. Some families will require less time, others more. “There comes a point where you want a little more independence,” she says.

The center maintains strict rules, including a no-visitors policy.

Teen parents are a challenging population to house for a host of reasons. About half of New Moms’ residents have grown up in the homeless system. Many have experienced abuse. Many have squatted in abandoned buildings. That means the youths often lack skills that most take for granted such as how to operate household appliances.

To help, a variety of programs are available at the Transformation Center. Services include case management, support groups, and programs that encourage healthy parent-child relationships. Participants are urged to attend GED programs or participate in professional development to work toward economic independence.

The building also has space that will be leased to a licensed day-care provider, which will generate income for the facility and provide day-care opportunities for families.

While many would consider the Transformation Center to be permanent supportive housing, McLoughlin sees it more as a hybrid. It captures the key elements of permanent supportive housing with its affordable apartments and extensive services. At the same time, officials at New Moms encourage residents to gain skills, become independent, and then make way for the young families that will come after them. “They are very empowered by that,” McLoughlin says.

To finance the development, the Illinois Housing Development Authority provided $6.2 million through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which aims to revitalize neighborhoods struggling with foreclosure and abandonment. The development of the Transformation Center returns a vacant property to good use.

The city of Chicago also provided $3.7 million in HOME funds. The Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco provided another $750,000 through its Affordable Housing Program. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity contributed a $112,395 grant to include energy efficient features.

McLoughlin is hard pressed to pick out the most important service offered to residents. “Our philosophy is they need them all equally,” she says.

But, it all begins with housing. “These are young homeless families that need a safe place before they can start on anything,” McLoughlin says.