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Chicago opens first new domestic violence shelter in more than a decade

Nearly two years late and at more than twice the original cost, Chicago’s first new domestic violence shelter in more than a decade is finally opening its doors to women and children trying to escape and break the abusive and often deadly cycle.

“The most dangerous time for a victim is when she’s trying to leave. Women need a safe place to be. If you can’t leave, you’re going to continue to get beaten and ultimately get killed,” WINGS CEO Rebecca Darr said.

“The city has 112 shelter beds for victims of domestic violence. We’re adding 40. Women will stay here for 120 days in a building that allows them to hide in plain sight. During that time, we’ll help them try to get on their feet and away from their abusers permanently. Absolutely it will save lives. If they know they have a safe place to go where they’ll be fed and taken care of, they’ll have the guts to leave.”

In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to donate $500,000 in city land and $1.8 million in disputed back taxes and legal fees paid by a Chicago strip club to help build the new WINGS Metro shelter in a Chicago Lawn neighborhood where police reports show a high incidence of domestic violence.

At the time, Emanuel projected that the new shelter would cost $4.2 million and open in June 2014. That was followed a few months later by a ceremony where the mayor and Vice President Joe Biden touted the project and its impact on battered women.

One year later, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the cost of the project had increased dramatically while construction had been slowed by a brutal winter that delayed soil testing, which ultimately uncovered the need for environmental remediation tied to underground storage tanks.

City Hall refused to identify the site’s prior use because the precise location of domestic-violence shelters must be concealed to protect battered women and children.

The final cost has since ballooned to $10 million.

On Thursday, Darr said the cost of the project skyrocketed because the scope changed dramatically.

“We decided to raise additional money to renovate the old police facility, keep the building and use it. We gutted it and asked an architect to attach the new and old buildings so we could have more space for families,” Darr said.

By combining a rehabilitated police facility with a new annex building, there’s space for family suites, a 40-bed safe house and a long-term stay apartment complex with retail shops and social services for battered families.

The two-story, 18,000-square-foot building will increase the city’s capacity to serve battered families by 35 percent.

In addition to the $1.8 million strip club settlement, the city donated $170,000 in vacant land. The Chicago Low Housing Trust Fund kicked in another $400,000 to bankroll three transition living apartments for battered women. More than $7 million has been raised from private donors. John and Rita Canning have announced a $1 million challenge grant to make up the difference and bankroll operations. Another $1 million challenge grant has been made by the Foglia family.

The garden at the WINGS Metro Center is named for Brenda Sexton, a former Chicago Police officer murdered by her abusive boyfriend in 2000.

“She kicked him out and thought he was gone. But he came back, got a baseball bat and killed her. He was the father of her 7-month-old,” Darr said.

Sexton’s children are all “successful young adults,” even after losing their mother, Darr said.

“Kids are amazingly resilient. The younger we get them, the better off they are. That’s why intervention is so important. They come in with little kids and we’ve changed their lives forever. They don’t grow up in abusive homes. We’re stopping the cycle.”