Tucked away in the basement of the Wellington Avenue United Church is a refuge. It's not a place to find comfort in spirituality, as one may guess, but a place for LGBTQ youth to find support in social services, medical care and much more. The Broadway Youth Center ( BYC ) of Howard Brown Health is this safe haven.
BYC Director Latonya Maley, 28, is working her "dream job," she told Windy City Times, coordinating the day-to-day operations of the center. Maley has always been interested in LGBTQ health services. "In college, I was a baby dyke rabblerouser," she said. "I was involved in student organizing for LGBT folks, LGBT folks of color, feminist organizing, sexual reproductive justice organizing, organizing for folks that were undocumented. I wanted to find a way to mush that all together."
To do that, she pursued a master's degree in public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Social inequities have a consequence on people's bodies," she said she realized during her time in school, which eventually led her to a research position at Howard Brown and the BYC.
"Our mission [at the BYC] is to improve the quality of life and to advocate for the wellbeing of young people," she said. "Especially young people that are LGBT-identified or are experiencing homelessness. At the center of our mission are queer homeless folks, but if you take care of the most vulnerable, you're taking care of everybody else by having a body-positive framework of providing healthcare."
While her work can be rewarding, dealing with the "overwhelming need for the little bit of resources we have is really hard," Maley said. "But then there's also your own self-care. Balancing sustainability and self-care is difficult, but at the same time you know that this place isn't really about you. It's about the clients and their needs."
In order to better fulfill meet those clients' needs, BYC is designing a new space for its workspace, 4009 N. Broadway, that will open in January.
"We've got to have a safe space, a bubble, where [people seeking the BYC's services] can be loved," Maley said. "They can be queer; they can be trans. Their gender is wonderful. They're not at risk. They're safe. But then our programs end," Maley said. "I'm trying to be more thoughtful about how the loving, emotional healing and physical healing space ripple out into the community and create opportunities for neighbors to get involved too."
That's why, Maley said, she's even more excited for the new space, which the center is designing exactly for their needs.
"We believe in an integrated service model," she said. "It's important that healthcare also means emotional care; it means social care. If you want someone to be undetectable in their HIV status, they need housing, good food and can live in the body they want. We take mental health very seriously. They need opportunities for growth and development, which is why we offer youth development programming, drop-in programming, therapy services, and GED classes. The dream is all at the same time and the same place, which can't happen here [in our temporary location], but it will in the new space."
Initially, Maley said she was a bit hesitant about using the basement of the church as the center's transitory space.
"It's interesting that this space we're in now is in a churcha space that a lot of LGBT people might be afraid to enter," she said.
However, Maley said she thinks that the relationship between the church and the center has been smooth and beneficial.
"Their priority is to make people feel loved, so I think they take a step back from the more dogmatic things to provide the space," she said. "They've been really supportive of us, but at the same time have been really good about letting us do our thing how we want. There may be some people that self-select out of coming to this space, but I think a lot of people do come here and they don't feel like they're in a church, so they don't experience the pain that churches may have caused them in their past. Our space doesn't feel like a church; it feels like a clinic or a day care [center]."
Once BYC settles in its new location, Maley eventually sees herself returning to nursing school while BYC is run entirely by people who formerly accessed BYC's resources and services. "We have to remember to move out of the way," she said. "Even though I'm a Black lesbian, I'm not in the group that most affected by HIV. A Black trans woman leading the BYC is a wonderful idea. I've got to move over to make space. Those that are most impacted by these health disparities should be leading the efforts that address them."