Nancy Rivera
Nancy Rivera (right), 19, hugs Saphyre Lee Rivera, 19, at El Rescate on May 14, 2014. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

These are the faces of past and present residents of El Rescate Independent Living Program, a transitional-housing program based in Humboldt Park that focuses on homeless LGBTQ and HIV-positive Latino youths. With youth homelessness on the rise, The Reporter sat down with homeless youth to talk about some of the causes of homelessness and some of the solutions. 

Nancy Rivera, 19

Nancy Rivera grew up in Humboldt Park. She has been in and out of the Department of Children and Family Services system since 2000 because of family problems. Rivera always felt like a misfit in her family, and after she came out to them at age 15, no one wanted to talk to her. “I disgusted them,” she says. She was in and out of foster care and “started getting locked up in ’08” for “selling drugs, fighting policemen; just having problems with authority.”

In 2011, she was sent to Indian Oaks Academy, a treatment facility in Manteno, Ill., where she resided for two years and was able to work on her behavioral issues and living skills.

After leaving the academy, Rivera enrolled in an independent-living program but left because she clashed with staff. She bounced around and landed at El Rescate in January 2014 but left in May 2014. She is still in touch with her case manager,  Zenaida Lopez, who says,  “I tried to let her now that she has a place here … but if you aren’t ready you’re not ready.”

Rivera’s dream is to be a judge for DCFS. “All the foster homes I went to I felt like they were doing it for the money,” she says.


Roxy Pelagio, 21

Roxy Pelagio

Roxy Pelagio grew up in Rogers Park and then lived in other areas of the city before moving with her family to Carbondale, Ill., for a few years. She came back to Chicago in 2013. She moved out of her parents’ house, and then, after leaving her boyfriend, found a roommate. When that didn’t work out, she went to El Rescate.  She has obtained her GED, and is currently enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu for pastry arts, which she says wouldn’t be possible if she weren’t still residing at El Rescate. They informed her of various opportunities, offered stable housing rent-free and helped her find work.


Kristina Lasky, 21

Kristina Lasky

Kristina Lasky was born in China, adopted at age 2 and brought to Chicago. She was the only adopted child of three girls. At 12 she got in trouble with the law and was in and out of hospitals for her behavior. Her anger came from “the way I was treated,” she says. “I just held it all in. I used to cut.”

Her parents divorced when she was 16. Lasky was sent to a live-in facility in Wisconsin for two years. She got her high school diploma and, when she turned 18, she signed herself out.

She lived in another facility and then in a motel with a girlfriend. At 19, she spent about a year on the streets in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood.  When Vida/SIDA opened El Rescate in 2012, she was one of the first accepted to the program. She stayed for a year but says, “I got tired of the rules and I got tired of the drama and everything.”

After she left, she got into a relationship that became unsafe and had to return to El Rescate in April 2012. “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but I did them to be safe and survive,” Lasky says. “I knew I needed to come back to do what I needed to do.” She got a summer job at the Diabetes Empowerment Center and started training to be a Zumba instructor. She says the change came from growing up.

Without El Rescate she says she would be “on the streets still; in a mess still.”

Lasky started classes at Wilbur Wright this fall.  She plans to get her degree in sociology and become a social worker.


Jose Ramos, 24

Jose Ramos

Jose Ramos grew up in Humboldt Park and is the second-oldest of his five siblings. His grandmother raised him from age 5. When he was in high school he worked at a grocery store and cared for her. She died when he was 18.

Ramos is aging out of El Rescate. The facility is only for ages 18-24. He is working full-time at Cricket and is saving money so that he can move out. He’d like to go back to school, but his priority right now is simply to make money to pay the bills and be stable. “It costs money to live,” he says. “If you don’t have money to live then, basically, you’re dying.”

“I think they either need to raise the minimum wage or something needs to happen where everyone can support themselves because if it keeps going the way it is, the cycle’s going to keep repeating itself and we’re just not going to get anywhere,” Ramos says.

“Next stop: prison. You get three meals a day. You’re desperate so you commit a crime,” Ramos says.  “… But this shouldn’t happen. So to have this [transitional-living facility], this is cool. There’s one or two other programs, but they’re limited to how much they can take in.”

Michelle is a photojournalism fellow at The Chicago Reporter.