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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Everything At This Humboldt Park Store Is Free For Neighbors In Need, From Clothes To Food

A group of restaurant and bar workers turned an old driving school on Humboldt Park's Division Street into People Over Profit, a free store for the community.

Claire Lyerla sorting through donated items at the People Over Profit free store, 2712 W. Division St.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
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HUMBOLDT PARK — A free store launched last year to help neighbors get basic necessities is still going strong, frequently selling out as residents stock up in the ongoing pandemic.

A group of restaurant and bar workers in the Humboldt Park area started the People Over Profit free store last spring inside an old driving school at 2712 W. Division St. The hospitality workers, who were struggling themselves during the pandemic, came up with the idea as they brainstormed a mutual aid project to help neighbors trying to make ends meet, organizer Kristina Magro said.

“It’s easy to donate a dollar from every drink, but how do you take that a step further and how do you actually engage with members of the community?” said Magro, beverage director for The Orbit Group.

Supported by donations, people can come in for clothes, food, books, household items and other essentials.

“I love it. It’s very nice. It’s good for the neighborhood,” longtime Humboldt Park resident Dorothy Jones said during a recent shopping trip. “People need things, and they don’t have to go looking for it. They’re right here.”

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Inside the free store at 2712 W. Division St.

The free store is a joint effort between Magro and the other hospitality professionals who run Support Staff, a nonprofit dedicated to breaking down mental health barriers in the hospitality industry, and Claire Lyerla, bartender at The Continental.

Soon after joining forces, the hospitality workers settled on opening a community center and free store in Humboldt Park to “alleviate some of the stresses that affect people on a daily basis and their mental health,” Magro said.

“We all lost our jobs as a collective group of people in the hospitality industry. … The moment that happened we sounded the alarm and were like: How can we help? How can we raise money? How can we do something?” Magro said.

Thanks to a donor, the group members signed a two-year lease on the vacant Division Street storefront. They got to work fixing up the space, putting up drywall and giving the walls fresh coats of paint, and then used their hospitality industry connections to fill it with donated items, from clothes and shoes to food and personal hygiene products.

“There was a lot of work to do in the space, and we’re just a bunch of bartenders and chefs,” Magro said. “So you can definitely tell that we are not professionals, but we did the best we could with the skill sets we have.”

When the store opened last summer, neighbors were confused, unsure if they could just take the items, Magro and Lyerla said. But the project took off by way of social media and word-of-mouth, particularly as Lyerla started forming relationships with people in her time working in the shop.

Now, people line up to get in on the weekends, Lyerla said.

“This experience — even moreso than I thought it would — really mirrors my experience as a dive bartender, where people become somewhat like family,” Lyerla said. “They’ll share their personal stories and struggles and day-to-day life. I’ve had more than one person cry on my shoulder over things that are maybe directly or indirectly correlated with what’s going on in the world right now.”

On a recent afternoon, several people came in to shop, including neighborss Vera Neskoroscheny and her 20-year-old, Mia Neskoroscheny.

Mia Neskoroscheny said they’ve had trouble paying their bills and other expenses, so they’ve become regulars at the shop, picking up clothes, food and books they couldn’t otherwise afford.

“The food is especially helpful because we struggle financially. We don’t eat too good, so it’s nice to be able to eat full meals,” Mia Neskoroscheny said.

That’s exactly why the People Over Profit free store exists: to connect neighbors in need with basic necessities, Magro said.

“We really wanted this to be able to create some some sort of relief for folks who are still hurting from the result of the pandemic,” she said. “The world has opened up slightly and I think people have really kind of tried to go back to ‘normal’ and we really haven’t considered that there’s a lot of people out there who don’t have basic necessities.”

The People Over Profit project also serves as headquarters for Support Staff. Magro said the team plans to build a podcast studio and therapy room for the nonprofit, with the hopes of hosting therapy sessions once a month.

The group is also using the store for community-building events under the Support Staff umbrella. Last month, the hospitality workers hosted a sandwich-making event; over the holidays, they put on a meetup centered around writing holiday cards to incarcerated people.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
A shopper at the People Over Profit free store at 2712 W. Division St.

Magro said they hope to partner with more food rescue programs to keep their fridges filled with fresh produce and other groceries. The group is always seeking more donations, especially food and hygiene products, Lyerla said.

The store’s hours can vary, but it is consistently open 3-8 p.m. Wednesdays and 1-6 p.m. Saturdays. Outdoor resources like the community fridge, lockers and pet supplies can be donated 24/7, but things like clothing and items stored inside can only be donated when the store is open, organizers said.

“We’re just going to keep pushing, keep expanding, keep listening to what people need and keep trying to make it happen,” Magro said.

At its core, the project is about taking the “stuff we take for granted on a daily basis and giving it to the folks who need it,” and that will remain the mission until the lease is up, Magro said.

“Because, in my humble opinion, the hospitality doesn’t end between your four walls within your establishment,” Magro said. “Hospitality should continue into the community. We, as hospitality professionals, should really look around and listen to our community and recognize the things they need.”

For more information about the store and People Over Profit events, visit the project’s Instagram.

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