From streets to stability: Chicago nonprofit offers lifeline to city's homeless community

There are roughly 68,000 people experiencing homelessness in Chicago, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. It’s a staggering number that is the driving force behind the mission of one local nonprofit. Through outreach, they are providing a threshold to new beginnings.

Navigating a hectic world can be difficult enough, but without a place to call home it’s even more daunting.

"Doing outreach every day looks a lot different," Thresholds outreach worker Lillian Risser said.

That’s why Thresholds, a Chicago nonprofit, is dedicated to giving everyone a shot at living an independent and healthy life.

Founded in 1959, Thresholds works to pave a pathway for unhoused individuals and those suffering mental health and substance use disorders, helping them reclaim their lives through care, employment, advocacy, and housing.

"What’s at the heart of what we do, is that we essentially work to build trust and relationships with folks," said Christian Zamarriego, director of Thresholds’ Homeless Outreach Program. "What we know is that services are extremely effective when we go out in the community and bring services to individuals."

The CTA is where many of Chicago’s unhoused individuals find shelter.

Donning vests, Thresholds outreach workers are equipped with snack packs, hygiene kits, and paperwork to help them get started.

At the Red Line’s Lake Street station, a team recently met Willy and his dog. He’s been living on trains and is looking to find his footing.

Interactions that might seem simple are monumental to those receiving support.

Along with outreach across platforms, Thresholds has boots on the ground that reach all parts of the city. In January, the organization launched its West Side homeless outreach team.

"We are the only outreach team who has a nurse that is conducting outreach with our outreach workers. The nurse has an ability to provide life-saving critical services to individuals experiencing homelessness who face a lot of barriers accessing traditional healthcare settings," Zamarriego said.

Askale Facey Phillips is the team nurse. She performs medical assessments and provides wound care at encampments, helping clients coordinate doctor’s appointments and track their medications.

Day-to-day, she’s joined by outreach workers like Risser.

"When we’re canvassing, we just kind of go up to encampments that we see or individuals that we see at bus stops or under viaducts," Risser said.

Together, the team helps them navigate the healthcare system and get the care they need.

"I think bringing the services to individuals is really important because when you are struggling with a serious mental illness, it’s not the easiest to go out and find resources for yourself," Risser said.

But it's more than resources. The team is also there to listen to their stories, their concerns and provide hope.

"I think what’s important about what we do is that we always come back," Facey Phillips said.

As Facey Phillips explained, even if today is not the day an individual is ready to accept support, tomorrow might be.

"And that’s the thought behind how we approach individuals. Their distrust of people in general is very high. But you come around as often as we do, we build that relationship, and establish that rapport. They start warming up to us," Facey Phillips said.

Thresholds, as a whole, serves thousands of individuals each year. Since the West Side team was launched, they've connected with more than 150 people.

"A lot of the times we see that yield great reward and really great outcomes," Zamarriego said.

One great outcome is Carey Moore.

"I met Thresholds and they got me back on my feet," Moore said.

Moore has been living without a roof over his head for more than six years. His journey of being unhoused stems from heartbreak.

"It was like I was hiding the pain," Moore said.

Several years ago, he said his daughter was murdered and soon after, he lost his mom.

"And it just led me out to the streets, so I’ve been on the streets ever since," Moore said.

With Thresholds’ help, Moore is now looking to a brighter future and will soon be moving into his very own apartment in Garfield Park.

"That’s a big step for me," Moore said.

One step that will lead to many more positive ones.

"The best part of it isn’t just what we’re doing, but getting to see these people take change into their own hands," Risser said.

"We have to give them a little bit more grace, and I think that’s what we do, give them a second chance. Just support them, because they do need support. I think everybody needs support," Facey Phillips said.

In addition to teams on the ground, Thresholds also operates from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday at Harold Washington Library, where resources are available to new and existing clients.