GREATER GRAND CROSSING — A nearly-100-year-old church that sat vacant for years is reopening as a community center for young adults experiencing homelessness and housing instability.
The Lyte Collective, a group that supports young adults impacted by poverty and homelessness, will open the Lyte Lounge, a $1.8 million youth center for young adults, this summer.
The group members overhauled the interior of the former Black Methodist for Church Renewal, 549 E. 76th St., tearing down walls and renovating ceilings and floors in the 11,000-square-foot church to bring their vision to life.
The center will offer young people 16-30 a stocked kitchen, full showers, overnight and long-term storage, a clinic and a laundry room, among other services. A music studio, art room, gym and yoga room — called the Nest — will give youth a place to relax and express themselves artistically.
The group spent years fundraising and securing grants for the center. A six-figure loan gave them the final push to open.
The goal is to create a “safe space for young people to hang out,” Executive Director Casey Holtschneider said.
“We wanted to go back to that traditional community center vibe,” Holtschneider said. “You can come here and play basketball and do some yoga, but while you’re here, you can get a meal, make a sandwich, shower, and not have to tell anybody about it. We’re here to help young people, whatever they need, wherever they are, as long as they want.”
‘There’s History Here’
The small team behind Lyte Collective has worked out of their cars since 2015, meeting youth wherever they are, said Chief Innovation Officer Carl Wiley.
Whether it was a McDonald’s or Starbucks, the team would pop up to assist with finding housing and employment or offering therapy and parental support.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), whose ward includes the former church, was the first to tell the collective about the building, Holtschneider said. Built in 1926, the church was vacant for years in the late 2000s. Sawyer told them they “had to check out the space,” she said.
When the organizers walked into the church, they started to hug, Holtschneider said. It was “beautiful,” she said. They’d finally found a home.
The Lyte Collective bought the church in 2017 for a little more than $100,000, Holtschneider said. Construction started in 2019. The Bowa Group, a Black-owned firm, and DAAM, LLC handled the renovations.
The collective hoped to open in 2020, but the pandemic put a halt to their plans, Holtschneider said. Still, neighbors who saw the building being revived stopped by and talked about how they once played basketball in the church’s gym or spent days in the day care, she said.
“The space meant a lot to people, and they didn’t want to come in here and see it knocked down,” Holtschneider said. “There’s history here.”
Along the way, the collective met their “secret angel,” Holtschneider said. They would visit the lounge and find the grass was cut or the snow had been shoveled, Wiley said.
Jerome Davis, who lives across the street, was handling the tasks, Wiley said.
The collective added him to the team in 2017, Holtschneider said. Davis came out of retirement to be the chief building engineer, she said.
“You can’t dream of anything better than moving across the street from an amazing human being who knows everything you don’t,” Holtschneider said.
The Lyte Lounge will be the collective’s first in-house operation center.
The group will continue to offer mobile support because “the South Side is convenient for some youth, but not for all,” Wiley said. But it’s exciting to have a central location, he said.
“We’re changing our dynamic on its head,” Wiley said. “We’re excited to open the doors and have everything here now.”
The Lyte Collective served about 150 young people in 2021, Holtschneider said. It’s already surpassed that number this year and expects to double the number of people it helps once the center is open, she said.
“The hardest thing is feeling like you’re alone in this world,” Holtschneider said. “My biggest dream is that you walk in and feel like your people are here, and you have a place where you feel like you belong — where you can breathe and just be.”
The lounge will have a long list of amenities, including a computer room and a playroom for children. A full-service kitchen will double as a community hub where youth can connect and eat and a cafe where youth can serve coffee and small bites for work.
“We’re providing a safe environment to learn these skills,” Wiley said. “Sometimes, youth get their first jobs and it’s like diving into the deep end. You can make mistakes here.”
An art studio “made to get messy” is stocked with easels and paint brushes, and the Nest has giant bean bags.
One of the highlights of the lounge will be a music studio.
The rounded studio has guitars on the walls, a recording booth and a grand piano from 1933. Computers are equipped with personal audio workspaces so youth can “get their feet wet with recording.”
Wiley, a lifelong musician, will operate the studio and teach classes.
Art is “a cathartic thing for youth,” Wiley said. The music studio is one of many rooms in the lounge that will hopefully offer relief from the many stressors of the world, he said.
“A lot of young people that experience some really hard stuff and may not feel comfortable talking to someone in a therapeutic session or, in addition to therapy, might want to express themselves and get some things off their chest,” Wiley said.
“That’s what this space is. You come in, grab something off the wall and play it.”
The collective hopes to open the Lyte Lounge in a few weeks, Holtschneider said. The members are waiting on an occupancy certification from the city. Entry will be by appointment only in the first few months while organizers “figure out a flow,” Holtschneider said.
As they expand, the group members hope to raise more money to provide adequate services for youth, Holtschneider said. They took out a $400,000 loan to finish the lounge, and it’ll cost about $800,000 a year to operate, Holtschneider said.
Despite the hurdles it took to get here, there is only hope ahead.
The collective is “removing stigmas” in the service sector by helping people of a range of ages “get the support they need,” Holtschneider said.
“When people need help, they need it immediately. They need people in their lives,” Holtschneider said. “Our target is housing instability and homelessness, but we extend admission to all young people because we want them to be here always so that they’re connected even when they aren’t in crisis.”
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