Jackie Gonzalez is the program director of El Rescate Independent Living Program located in Humboldt Park, which offers resources and housing for homeless youth ages 18-24 and focuses on LGBTQ or HIV-positive Latinos. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

According to Chicago’s Plan 2.0, the city’s strategy to prevent and end homelessness, “there are 1,500 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who currently access Chicago’s homeless assistance system each year and thousands more we have yet to reach.”

Founded in March 2012, El Rescate Independent Living Program is a transitional housing program based in Humboldt Park that focuses on LGBTQ and HIV positive Latino youths and is the only program of its kind in Chicago. However, despite the need, nine of the 25 beds are empty.

The program’s director, Jackie Gonzalez, is eager to fill the empty beds she believes few people know are available. A lesbian Latina with a child the same age as her residents, she has been a director for programs that assist ex-offenders, help unemployed youth find jobs, and ensure decent affordable housing in vulnerable communities — experiences she calls on daily in her current position.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Gonzalez to talk about why the mission of El Rescate is so important to her, what it’s like raising so many youths at once, and why she believes it is vital to the success of the community.

How and when did you start at El Rescate?

I started [last] October. When I came, I was already working, but I was looking for a part-time position they had. They interviewed me for the part-time, but they were like “So, we have this program, El Rescate, and we would like you to be the director of the program.” I was like, “Wow.” It really caught my attention. The mission itself, I really felt it, I felt like it would be a really good place to work. I could make a difference in the Latino population plus the LGBTQ population. So I was like, “I’ll do it.”

I really identified a lot with the population and the community. Obviously, I’m a lesbian myself, so I know all the barriers I had to go through in the past. So that’s perfect.

Even though you see it on paper, you cannot imagine the intensity of the program. I was a director of four different programs at once, but combining them doesn’t even equal to the intensity of the program over here. If you are really for the mission you are going to be devoted to the position that you have. Yeah, I have 16 residents right now, that means I have 16 kids that are depending on me. Yeah, I have my staff that helps me and helps them also, but in reality they come to me. They need money, they come to me. They need school supplies, they come to me. The only reason I did that, I mean, I could very well delegate all those tasks, but I want to have that, not control, but that closeness with the residents.

It sounds like you have developed a family structure. It’s not the traditional family structure, but it sounds like you have people filling those roles and you are filling the role of mother. Is that what you intended?

Oh yeah, definitely. We have a resident that just recently started living with us. She was not going to school; she was a ward of the state. She’s been here three weeks, she started school today. She was so excited. I got up today and I was thinking of her. Just like when my daughter was in school. I have a daughter their age. I have a 22-year-old daughter.

It’s just like I tell them, “You probably couldn’t be at home or didn’t want to be at home with two of your parents, now you have six parents. So you have to report grades to six of us, you have to report everything to six of us.”

Why do you think it is important to create that atmosphere for them?

A lot of them, probably all of them, they come with that need. They come with a background with family that either is split or they are just not given that connection within their family. Some of them don’t feel loved. They’ve been out there on the streets for how many months, days? Who knows how long? When they get that warmth, that family connection, it’s like they ask, “Do you really care?” We do care. I can honestly say that not only myself, but my staff, do care. Like Zenaida, our senior case manager, she came on Saturday and gave them haircuts. She was off on Saturday!

We’re here. We’re on call 24/7. If one of the staff is not able to come in, I come in. I’ve come at 1, 1:30 in the morning. When something comes up I’m here.

Is it hard to have separation? It sounds like this is more than just a job.

Sometimes it could be challenging. Like my partner says sometimes, “You are the director. Why do you have to get calls constantly?” Because I’m their backup. If no one else is answering they know that this last person is going to be answering or calling back. Of course they are going to call me.

Sometimes it can be challenging, especially when your family doesn’t understand the intensity and the type of program. A lot of people might say it’s just a job, you clock in, you clock out, and end of the story. No, this is not a factory. My mind is constantly working, “Oh my god, this girl needs laundry money. This one needs socks. Oh my god, she said she needed money for a field trip.” It’s like having 16 kids, you can’t forget about one. You have to be constantly worried about all of them.

So I manage, but you can’t completely divide things.

What are your biggest challenges working with the youth? Have you ever had to tell someone to go?

Telling one of the youth or residents that they have to exit the program, that’s one of my worst moments because I don’t want to it. Because we failed, not only I failed, but the program failed also. That’s why I give them extra chances, but there is a limit. It’s like an apple basically. If you have a rotten apple in a basket and you leave it there, then all the apples are going to be messed up. So it’s like you are forced to do it. And that’s my worst moment, to tell someone, “Sorry, we worked with you, but you are not doing what you need to be doing.”

Challenges are getting residents focused to the actual goal because not all of them are at the same level.

What is that goal, as you see it?

The main one’s obviously education. Getting their education going. And their financial stability. They have to balance their earnings and what not. Getting a job, going into employment. Or even just changing their attitude. Before even going into employment or education our goal is changing that negative attitude to a positive attitude. Otherwise they won’t able to reach any of the other goals, so that is the main one. Sometimes that could be really hard.

What changes would you like to see in the way that the wider community perceives these youth?

Basically just giving them a chance to prove who they are. Give a chance to learn a little bit about them. And know that they’re not just out there just because. There’s always a reason why things happen. Either the parents didn’t want them in the house for their sexual orientation, and obviously if they are selling drugs it’s because they need to somehow survive and maybe that’s the only way they were able to get money. If they were stealing it’s because the same reason. If they were even prostituting themselves, because we have residents that have done that in the past. You have to understand why that was happening. If you don’t support the youth, we’re not going to end up with anyone. The youth is the future of the community. If you don’t trust your youth, if you don’t help them to get to the point where they’re supposed to be at, then we are not going to have a successful community. That’s plain and simple. That’s how I see it.

Editor’s note: El Rescate recieved three more residents after this interview and now has a total of 19.

Michelle is a photojournalism fellow at The Chicago Reporter.