ROGERS PARK — Melissa Johnson sat with her 1-year-old son, Michael, in the back of their temporary new home when their quiet time was disrupted by her two daughters, their laughs echoing through the auto-garage turned shelter.
One month ago, she was unsure about moving her three children from the West Side and accepting housing help from New Life Interim Housing in Rogers Park. But her kids’ laughs are reassuring. It has benefited their education too, with 9-year-old Darrica now in a gifted program.
“You fall on hard times … and to have someone take a personal interest and not know my whole story?” Johnson said. “[New Life Interim Shelter] has been a blessing. It opened us up to things that I didn’t think my kids would have.”
New Life Interim Shelter has been a lifeline for thousands of families like Melissa Johnson’s for 30 years. In 1991, the nonprofit Good News Partners opened the shelter in a 1920s auto garage on Paulina Street north of Howard Street.
After making the most of their location, New Life Shelter’s building is in disrepair. Good News Partners is now on the cusp of a major renovation of New Life that would not only increase its capacity but make life in a shelter more dignified and rewarding, officials say. But the nonprofit is $300,000 short on its renovation budget, and is turning to the public for the final fundraising push.
“We need all the space we can get because the numbers are just increasing,” said Kelvin Johnson, the longtime program director of New Life. “We’re in desperate need of a renovation. There are very few family shelters in the city, which makes this project more important.”
The entrance to New Life is tucked behind a carport, left over from when the building operated as an auto repair shop.
The cavernous driveway leads to the one-room building, where 30 bunk beds are partitioned off behind clear plastic and arranged almost like a barracks.
New Life reduced its bed count to 30 from 37 beds during the coronavirus pandemic. But demand for shelter was up during the pandemic, and New Life housed over 1,000 people — mainly women and children — last year. In early June, 24 people were staying at the shelter.
“There’s not many people here right now,” Kelvin Johnson said during a tour of the facility. “These beds aren’t empty. They’re out working. This is the new face of homelessness.”
In the main shelter room, the bunk beds are next to the dining tables and common area, which share space with administrative offices. The 5,000-square-foot building is held up by a leaky bow truss roof. Its lack of interior walls makes the building drafty in the winter and its lack of air conditioning and windows makes it sweltering in the summer, though industrial-sized fans help produce a breeze.
Off the shelter’s main room, the only bathroom has four shower stalls, but only two currently work and the bathroom is not accessible to those with disabilities, Kelvin Johnson said.
But all that could soon change, so long as New Life shelter can fund its project.
Good News Partners has plans for a $600,000 renovation of the shelter, which would provide a new experience for its residents, the nonprofit said.
Plans call for new electrical and plumbing systems in the building, including air conditioning. The roof would be fixed and the fluorescent lighting removed. The building’s carport would be built in to allow for a more secure, two-door entry system and new intake area.
The kitchen would be rebuilt with an island, allowing for cooking demonstrations to be held for residents, said Dana Teeter, the lead volunteer on the renovation project.
Expandable walls will give families more privacy, and a glass-enclosed play space will give their parents a reprieve while still allowing for supervision from other rooms. There is also plans for a new media and computer room, plus new bunk beds and furniture throughout.
Most importantly to Kelvin Johnson, there will be eight single-stall family bathrooms, which will provide accessible and upgraded facilities, plus more privacy for residents.
Good News Partners has secured about half of the funds needed for the project, but cost increases mean the nonprofit still needs $300,000. The plan was to originally break ground in July, but it is now hoping to do so in August while waiting on more funding to roll in, Teeter said.
It is looking in multiple places for that funding and has also launched a public fundraising campaign for the project. Neighbors can donate to the building campaign or sponsor a bunk bed with storage for $1,700.
To donate and learn more about the project, click here.
The $600,000 budget is at a significant discount of what the project would cost without the donations that have already poured in. Evanston Lumber is providing discounted wood, and the project’s architectural, engineering and general contracting services were provided free of charge, Teeter said.
“Every single person has raised their hand and said, ‘I’m in,'” she said. “It’s been so heartwarming to see how much of a community effort it is. But we’re not quite there.”
With plenty of kids running around the facility at any given time, Kelvin Johnson said he likes to act as “your favorite uncle.” He has achieved just that kind of relationship with Melissa Johnson’s kids, particularly baby Michael.
The stay at New Life shelter has been good for Melissa Johnson’s family. Michael has a larger support system and Darrica, 9, and Dalilah, 6, have been exposed to programs like piano lessons and after school programs, she said. It has brought the family closer together, too.
“It took them [her kids] out of their normal ways and broadened their horizons,” she said. “They go the extra mile for me. It’s amazing.”
Aside from the security and systems upgrades, the renovation will afford a new level of hominess and dignity to a stay at New Life.
For 30 years, New Life has not only offered families a place to stay but a path to getting them back on their feet. New Life sets its residents up with transitional housing in places like Rogers Park’s Jonquil Hotel before finding them more permanent homes. Along the way, families are offered social services including job training and after-school programs for kids.
But transformative help only comes if there is trust and a bond between New Life and its residents, and that doesn’t always come easy, Kelvin Johnson said. Having a more inviting setting could go a long way to help residents.
“I’m most excited for the redesign because, not only are we helping homeless families, we’re helping them with dignity,” he said. “It’s hard to be homeless in a space that’s so open. Not only do we get people out of the elements, but we treat them with dignity, too.”
For more information on New Life Interim Housing’s renovation plans, click here.
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