Despite community opposition, the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals grants a permit to a Lakeview center for LGBT youth

Members of the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals--from left, Jonathan Swain, chairman, Sam Toia, and Catherine Budzinski--listen to those voicing their opposition to granting the Howard Brown Health Center a special-use permit that would allow its Broadway Youth Center to serve Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in Lakeview on Jan. 17 at the City Hall. More than 100 people gathered to show their support. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

Members of the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals--from left, Jonathan Swain, chairman, Sam Toia, and Catherine Budzinski--listen to those voicing their opposition to granting the Howard Brown Health Center a special-use permit that would allow its Broadway Youth Center to serve Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in Lakeview on Jan. 17 at the City Hall. More than 100 people gathered to show their support. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

After winning a fight over zoning that had threatened their operations, administrators of a Lakeview youth center say they’re happy to be getting back to serving the needs of underserved lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual youths in the community.

The Broadway Youth Center has been serving LBGT youths in Boystown since it set up shop in the lower level of the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in June. The center, which is operated by the Lakeview-based Howard Brown Health Center, offers a variety of services, including a drop-in center where youths between the ages of 12 and 24 can come to get basic needs like food, clothing, counseling and housing assistance, and engage in community building. The center also offers minimal medical care, such as HIV testing and counseling, while attempting to link youths into regular primary health care centers at Howard Brown.

The center has been serving hundreds of youth, some coming repeatedly to get services while others coming only once and moving on. In August alone, it received 238 medical visits and 1023 nonmedical visits.

“Lakeview has been traditionally a welcoming, safe environment for the LGBTQ community to live, socialize and meet one another. We, as an outreach of our health services, wanted to do something for them,” says Michelle Wetzel, Howard Brown’s general counsel. “It’s important this exists because LGBTQ youth are even more vulnerable than their heterosexual counterparts in terms of violence and unstable housing. We feel that because these youths are in Lakeview, it’s important that we’re in Lakeview to address their needs.”

But, in the summer, a zoning controversy arose when the South East Lake View Neighbors, a community group, notified 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney that the center had been operating without a special-use zoning permit. Tunney alerted Howard Brown of its need to apply for a permit, and it filed its application on Nov. 8.

The community group opposed the permit because its members believed it was inappropriate to provide medical services in a church, says Mike Demetriou, the group’s president. “Regardless of whether it’s primary or secondary, medical use is absolutely prohibited in that location,” he says.

The group also tried to reach a “good neighbor agreement” with Howard Brown administrators. Citing an issue like loitering, it wanted a mechanism in place to make sure it wouldn’t escalate “from minor issues to major issues,” Demetriou says.

“We don’t want someone operating a facility that has patrons who are going to need monitoring and supervision without adequate monitoring and supervision,” he adds.

But the negotiations eventually broke down over the extent of the required monitoring and its recordkeeping, Wetzel says.

On Tuesday, the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals announced that it had sided with Howard Brown and approved a zoning permit for the youth center to continue its operation.

The zoning board “determined we were not running a clinic, and that a community center was an appropriate description and approved our permit on that basis,” Wetzel says.

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