AUSTIN — A shelter with an on-site health clinic has opened on the West Side for families experiencing homelessness.
The Primo Center, 4952 W. Madison St., will serve families with children. It has 210 beds. The center also will provide public health services through a partnership with Lawndale Christian Health Center.
The Primo Center’s other shelters in West Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Englewood already serve at least 1,300 people struggling with housing instability each year, said Quintin Primo III, son of the center’s late founder, Bishop Quintin Primo Jr.
The center started off with “very inauspicious beginnings,” with a budget of just a few thousand dollars, Primo said.
“We struggled for many, many years but provided real services for the community,” Primo said. He said his father “would be thrilled” about their growth.
By integrating on-site health care into Primo’s housing services, the Austin shelter will bring families struggling with homelessness “comprehensive care addressing the social determinants of health,” said CEO Christine Achre.
“We believe we can bring child homelessness to a functional zero in Chicago, and this new facility allows us to serve more families in need and, with the help of Lawndale Christian Health Center, bring necessary pediatric services to a community in need,” Achre said.
The center was developed on a vacant property. The shelter has “transformed an abandoned, fire-ridden structure into usable space that is just a safe, supportive haven,” said Shelley Cooper, Primo’s chief community relations officer.
The center makes medical care more accessible to families with the greatest need, organizers said. A 2019 health needs assessment by Rush Medical University showed Austin residents have an average life expectancy of 71 years — 11 years shorter than in neighboring Oak Park.
Many factors impact the life expectancy gap, including social circumstances such as poverty, diet, housing stability and barriers to accessing to clinical health care.
“Through our growing partnership, we believe we can make a greater impact for families experiencing homelessness and increase access to quality primary care for neighbors in Austin,” said James Brooks, vice president of mission and community engagement at Lawndale Christian Health Center.
The center’s health clinic will have four exam rooms to help people staying there access preventative care, Brooks said.
The clinic will initially focus only on people at the shelter. But Lawndale Christian Health Center will soon expand the clinic to serve the wider Austin community, Brooks said. Services at the clinic will include medical care as well as services that address social circumstances that lead to poor health.
The clinic will have services for behavioral health, care management and vaccinations. It also will have an on-site laboratory.
“This site will allow us to do full primary care. This means we can develop deeper relationships with our patients and our residents here,” Brooks said.
Homelessness has been a major challenge throughout the pandemic, said Brandie Knazze, commissioner for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services. The new Primo Center will help fill the crucial need for more safe places for families experiencing housing insecurity, Knazze said.
“We’ve had to make sure that we keep the most vulnerable people safe. We set up alternate shelters. There’s a scarcity in shelter beds,” Knazze said.
Primo’s personnel work with families to find permanent housing. At least 74 percent of families in the shelters are placed into stable housing situations, according to the organization’s records. Less than 5 percent return to homelessness.
“Our goal always was to make instances of homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring,” Knazze said.
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