Chicago House is known as an agency of “firsts,” from starting the city’s first HIV/AIDS Employment Initiative in 2005 to opening the TransLife Center in 2013, the nation’s first comprehensive housing, employment and supportive services program specifically designed for transgender individuals.

But long before these great achievements, Chicago House had another “first:” The opening of their Families Supportive Housing Project. In 1992 – and for the first time in Chicago – mothers, fathers and children living with HIV/AIDS had a supportive, home-like environment to continue to live together as a family.

The program has seen astounding success! In the past year, 27% of Chicago House’s families increased their household income significantly, and two individuals graduated from professional training programs with certificates in Certified Nursing Assistant and Pharmaceutical Technician.

Want more? Go back in time and read the original newsletter article about the opening of the Families Supportive Housing Project.

We sat down with two Chicago House staff – Andrea Tashiro and Emily Ptacek – to learn more about the Families Program. Where did it all begin? How is it doing today? And what does family housing look like in the future?

Chicago House: How did you get your start at Chicago House?
I’m currently working with the youth in our Families Support Program. I was actually recruited by Stan Sloan to work as the volunteer coordinator and to set up adult literacy programming. Even back in 2002, Sloan was focused on creating opportunities for people with HIV/AIDS, and at a time where most considered it a death sentence. Part of what drew me to Chicago House was Sloan’s visionary leadership. I was excited to be a part of that!
Emily: Whereas Andrea works primarily with kids, I work mostly with our adult clients. Before Chicago House, I was working with refugees and writing grants, and I wanted to get back to direct services for families. I remember first visiting the Families Program house in 2002 and noticing the diverse names on the mailboxes. Many of the families were refugee, and it was important to me that I work for a diverse organization. Chicago House had that.

Chicago House: Andrea, you moved from working with adults to working with youth. What caused the shift?
: I wasn’t seeing much success working with adults at the time. Many of them were either in survival mode or believed they had no future to look forward to. It’s hard to motivate someone to improve their education when they’re worried about dying. My focus turned to the kids when we realized that we had no youth enrolled in high school at the Family Support Program. I discovered I had a knack for helping kids get better at school and develop job skills. It is so rewarding to see the kids graduate from high school, work and get into college. I’ve been working with youth ever since.

“This program helped me get into college and gave me the tools in order to succeed in that new world. Now I am a college graduate and working as an accountant part time. Chicago House was there for me every step of the way!” – Jeffrey, Chicago House youth

Chicago House: How do you approach working with the whole family?
: Andrea and I team-up a lot, and we provide all of our social work services onsite. The families live upstairs, and the social service providers are in the basement. It really feels like we’re an extension of the family. Sometimes the residents will come down to ask for advice in their pajamas, which shows their comfort with us. We’re also available after-hours via telephone. Our families know that we are available to them when they need us, and not just from 9 to 5.
Andrea: Sloan had the vision to expand our services to help the whole family, not just the adults. Back then, if there was a problem with one of our kids, we would say, “Let’s talk to the parents.” Now we view the kids as individuals, rather than extensions of their parents. We treat them as clients of Chicago House and extend all of our services to them too.

Chicago House: Have you seen any changes over the years?
: In the beginning, the parents didn’t fully trust us. They were suspicious of us working with their kids, but today the trust is definitely there. We had to show the parents that we’re here to be helpful, not to tell them what to do. Over time, they trusted us to work with their kids. Many times, the kids don’t want to leave the education sessions because they’re having such a good time!
Emily: We once planned a camping trip for our teenagers. Like normal teenagers, they filed into the van and settled-in for a long nap. I asked them if they knew where we were going, and they shook their heads. There was so much trust built-up that the kids and parents weren’t worried at all. They just knew they would have a great time with us!

Chicago House: What do you like most about your job?
: It’s amazing to see our adults recover from survival mode. Most of them didn’t think they’d be alive to see today, and now they suddenly have a whole lifetime to plan out. We’ve seen many families increase their income through the years, go back to community college to get degrees or professional certifications, and really work through issues that have held them back in the past. Thanks to effective HIV medication and the support of fellow residents and providers, our parents can now imagine a future with their whole family included.
Andrea: I’ve been at Chicago House for nearly 12 years, and I still love it! When the program started, our kids would say they wanted to be professional athletes or garbage collectors. Their exposure to careers was so limited. Chicago House has helped show them new opportunities, especially for the kids who went on our trip to Washington, DC. Many of them had never left the city. It’s amazing to see them dream big, and to help them realize those dreams!

Chicago House youth have a higher graduation rate than Chicago Public School students, and are more likely to enroll in college and successfully graduate (CH 2012 Outcomes Compared to Current CPS College Enrollment Statistics).

Chicago House: What’s next for the Families Program?
: Our program offers permanent housing to our clients, so there are long-term challenges we have to understand. We’re always asking ourselves, “What is this program going to mean for families as they grow older?” With age, there will be issues to face that may not be related to HIV or AIDS.
Andrea: It’s a similar question for the kids as they grow up. At the start, the high school graduation rate was 0%. Today, the graduation rate is 100%, so we’ve begun offering college prep for both parents and kids. Most of them are the first in their family to even graduate high school, so the family has no experience in college applications and scholarships. We just had a boy who was accepted to the Illinois Institute of Art, and we’re working to help his mom find ways to afford it. My job never gets old, and nothing is sweeter than taking on the new challenges of a healthy family!

Chicago House Family Support Program: Our Family Support Program is for families with dependent children. Adults living in this facility receive mental health services, case management and career counseling from on-site professionals. Chicago House also offers extensive developmental, educational and after-school programming for the approximately 35 children and youth who currently reside in the program with their parents or guardians. For more information, please visit the Family Support Program page.