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YWCA and StreetWise to join forces

The venerable women’s organization and the publication benefiting the homeless hope to form a more efficient union.

StreetWise CEO Julie Youngquist (left) and Dorri McWhorter, CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, at Streetwise headquarters in Uptown.
StreetWise CEO Julie Youngquist (left) and Dorri McWhorter, CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, at StreetWise headquarters in Uptown.
James Foster/Sun-Times

Businesses gobble up each other every day.

But only rarely do charities, and then usually because one is in crisis. Which is why my curiosity was piqued upon hearing YWCA Metropolitan Chicago is absorbing StreetWise.

Every Chicagoan who strolls downtown knows the latter — the weekly magazine that homeless folks buy for 90 cents then hawk on street corners for two bucks a copy, as pedestrians drop their heads and hurry by or occasionally — as I sometimes do, out of solidarity for fellow journalists — buy a copy. It’s a surprisingly lively publication.

I’d always assumed the YWCA is the distaff version of YMCA, maybe with special lady gyms I’ve never had reason to encounter or imagine. Wrong.

“Our mission we’re focused on is eliminating racism and empowering women,” said Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metro Chicago. “And promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.”

I bit back the question, “And how is that eliminating racism thing going?” and instead asked what they do, specifically, to advance those ends. The YWCA has dozens of programs, promoting child care, fighting child abuse, encouraging more inclusive, less biased workplaces, and working with CHA residents.

“Providing high quality support for training and education,” she said. “As well as sexual violence support services.”

Such as the Chicago Area Rape Crisis Hotline — 1-888-293-2080.

“We are first responders in that case,” McWhorter said. “We help people get the support they need. We also do a lot of prevention education in the schools. Good touch/bad touch. The sex scene and dating violence.”

No gyms, though.

“We do not have health clubs,” said McWhorter. “We don’t have pools, but we like to make waves.”

The YWCA is a far larger organization — a $25 million annual operating budget compared to StreetWise’s $800,000. Both feel the merge is a win.

“This allows us to leverage resources and serve more,” said Julie Youngquist, CEO of StreetWise. “It will be great to have facilities and finance and IT.”

“We get an expansion of our services to men in vulnerable populations, which we think is really important,” said McWhorter. “We can expand the work we do to populations who need us.”

StreetWise CEO Julie Youngquist (left) and Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, at StreetWise headquarters in Uptown.
StreetWise is being absorbed by YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. Shown at StreetWise’s headquarters in Uptown are StreetWise CEO Julie Youngquist (left) and Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago.
James Foster/Sun-Times

As with any marriage, there were concerns, particularly about joining with the opposite sex.

“Tons of questions,” said Jonathan Reinsdorf, vice chairman of the board at StreetWise. “We beat the hell out of this, internally. The biggest issue was the question about women. [The conclusion was] That’s not a viable concern. They don’t just serve women. They serve a lot of men. And while we may be male-dominated, we have a woman executive director. Our publisher is a woman, and half our executive board is women.”

The YWCA says a third of their clients — including callers to the rape hotline — are men. And 25 percent of StreetWise vendors are women.

How did the merger happen? Slowly. Conversations began in late summer, but — again, as with most matches — it took StreetWise a long time playing the field, searching before finding their soulmate.

“We spent the last seven years trying to find the right merger partner,” said Reinsdorf. “A lot of conversations with people.”

How did the idea start?

“It wasn’t that we were in trouble. The brand is huge throughout Chicago,” said Reinsdorf, son of pro sports magnate Jerry Reinsdorf. “But there was a ceiling to what we could do. You can’t be a stand-alone charity. It’s really hard; you’re inefficient, chasing dollars among a lot of other little charities. We came to the conclusion we need to find a merger partner, grow and help more people. “

Reinsdorf said that in two years they’d like to double their number of vendors — right now they have 125. Plus attract more female vendors and offer them improved services. YWCA hopes to serve more people, more comprehensively.

“It’s unprecedented for charities to combine where one is not desperate,” said Reinsdorf. “Here we have two stable entities. We show up with money in the bank, half a year’s worth of operating revenue. Charities are too fragmented; it’s time for small guys like us to merge into stronger entities. I hope it doesn’t stay unprecedented. It’s the blueprint for other charities to follow, merging to improve this whole landscape.”

Right now, the most obvious change the public might notice will be StreetWise’s new name: “StreetWise Powered by YWCA Metropolitan Chicago.”