New South Side center sets out to provide community, support for homeless young adults
The Lyte Lounge in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood wants to be a beacon for young people struggling with homelessness. Visitors can grab a meal, find community and feel at home.
Tanka Bradford met her future boss, Megan Wickman, when Bradford was 17 and living in a homeless shelter for the first time.
Wickman worked at the shelter and helped Bradford adjust to community living.
Years later, Wickman asked Bradford to join her organization, Lyte Collective, dedicated to supporting young people dealing with homelessness in Chicago.
Now, Bradford and other members of Lyte Collective’s board are applying lessons they learned from their experiences with homelessness as they open the Lyte Lounge, a community center for homeless young Chicagoans.
The Lounge is at 549 E. 76th St. in Greater Grand Crossing. Its goal is to provide a sense of community and support system to young adults experiencing homelessness that isn’t typically experienced in homeless shelters and centers.
“We were so frustrated by some of the things that were happening and not being able to take what young people were saying they needed and make it happen,” said Casey Holtschneider, one of Lyte Collective’s co-founders. “So we kind of came together and said, ‘We can figure this out, we can start an organization.’”
Lyte Collective — which also has a mobile youth support initiative and a transitional housing program — bought the building that would become Lyte Lounge in 2017. But the coronavirus slowed the project.
The nearly 100-year-old building required $1.6 million in renovations. After fundraising, donors and a $500,000 loan, the Lyte Lounge finally was ready.
The two-story building, nestled in a residential neighborhood, has an array of features built to nourish the lives of visitors. Bradford joyfully shows it off, explaining every last design detail.
“I’m all about this room right here,” she said with a grin, stretching out on one of the large soft chairs in the “nest,” a room designated for napping and yoga.
The design was steered by people with extensive experience within homeless shelters — people who knew exactly what they’d change if they had a chance to create their own program.
“The stuff that has the biggest impact on their lives, overall, is feeling valued in a way that people see you as a whole human being,” Holtschneider said.
The Lyte Lounge aims to support young adults and enrich their lives. The Lounge isn’t a shelter; it’s a place for those experiencing homelessness to meet their other needs.
While the Lounge will offer meals served cafe-style by a young chef, providing a caring community is more important to the employees.
“We don’t just want to say, you know, ‘Here’s a meal, go on your way.’ We want to say ‘Here’s a meal, come play basketball. Are you tired? How did you sleep last night? Was that shelter not too good? Let’s find you a new one,’” Bradford said.
This philosophy means there’s no strict cutoff on who they could serve and for how long. The Lyte Lounge will primarily serve anyone ages 16 to 30, but there’s flexibility.
“Most of the time, it was the funding that dictated how you had to do it,” Wickman said of the strict rules and age cutoffs she observed in other programs.
“So they leave because they have to, because there’s some artificial rules, right? And then they’re OK for a little bit,” she added. “Then boom,” in a year or two, “they’re homeless again.”
The Lounge also has a music studio with a recording booth, an art studio, a family room stocked with movies and board games, a computer lab, storage lockers, a basketball court and a garden with fresh produce.
Even the layout was thought through, Bradford said, noting, for example, the laundry room is next to a kids’ playroom so parents can wash clothes while keeping their eye on the little ones.
Through a partnership with the city, a free health clinic offers visitors sexual health screenings and other checkups.
But Bradford said perhaps what can be most valuable is that many at the Lounge have been in the same situation as those they are helping.
“When I talk to them, I speak from the place of lived experience: ‘Look, I’ve been to this shelter, I know this person, she will let you get an extra snack,’” Bradford said. “I tell them, ‘Look, this place isn’t that good, but it’s somewhere to sleep, and you make it through the night so we can find someplace else in the morning.’”
Bradford is particularly proud the center offers secure storage, something shelters and organizations typically don’t do.
Lyte Lounge employees are eager to open, needing just one last city inspection.
“There’s so much in the rules and rigidity (in homeless shelters) that really make it hard to sort of be at home and feel comfortable and safe,” Holtschneider said. “So just being able to just breathe or exhale, and get the rest and respite that you need in certain places isn’t really an option. We want the Lyte Lounge to be just a place of healing and joy.”
Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.