“Information is power,” says Guadalupe Gasca. As a housing counselor at Centro Romero, the information that Lupe gives families on the northeast side of Chicago helps them find and keep good apartments and homes. “Too many people don’t know their rights, or even that they have rights. There is a lot of need in our community.”
This need is why Bibian Cristino, one of our Capacity Building Specialists, initially urged Centro Romero to expand into housing counseling. At the time, Lupe was a receptionist, but it was a natural next step for her to start gaining the knowledge and experience she needed to become their first housing counselor. “I like to help the people who come in,” she explains. “And I do it already up front at the desk.”
Bibian helped Lupe figure out what steps she needed to take, and Lupe attended half a dozen trainings hosted by Housing Action Illinois. “In these workshops, I learned a lot,” she says. “There are people in them who have done this work for 20 or 30 years, and they’ve done so much.”
Lupe began counseling families part-time. During her first year, she was able to advise 42 individuals and families. Her clients are often students taking adult education classes or individuals coming to Centro Romero for help with domestic violence situations. They are frequently immigrants and refugees who are dealing with language barriers and working hard to create better lives for themselves. When clients come to her, Lupe says, “They can speak with me and not feel so alone.” She helps them navigate the confusing and complex choices involved in becoming a homeowner or avoiding foreclosure. “It’s not only about housing,” she continues. “Some people are looking for more, and I can refer people to public benefits.”
Taking the Next Step
In 2017, when Bibian developed and first taught a training on the Fundamentals of Rental Housing Counseling, Lupe was quick to join. She was immediately able to put her new rental counseling knowledge to use by helping Francisco, a man who first came to Centro Romero as a child for their youth programs. Francisco was dealing with mold and leaks in his apartment, and when he asked the landlord to fix the situation, they stopped accepting his rent payments and served him with an eviction order in retaliation. Lupe helped Francisco document his attempted money orders to pay rent and photos of his apartment’s condition. With her help, Francisco was prepared to go to court and able to avoid eviction.
Beyond Housing Counseling
Helping families find and keep good homes is a natural extension of the work that Centro Romero has been doing for more than 30 years. Founded in 1984 by Salvadoran refugees, the organization has become a pillar of support for the immigrant and refugee population in Chicago. In just 2016, they were able to serve 6,030 individuals. They carry out their mission, which is to provide skills for self-sufficiency to those with the fewest options, through three primary program areas:
- Adult Education: Classes in ESL, GED, Spanish literacy, and citizenship preparation.
- Family Services: Support for families in a variety of areas, including counseling and advocacy for those dealing with domestic violence, enrollment for public benefits, community education, immigration rights education, digital literacy and access, and youth programming.
- Legal Services: Legal assistance with immigration and naturalization issues, including citizenship and DACA applications.
Centro Romero does all of this with a staff of 27, most of whom started with the organization as volunteers and many of whom only work part-time, and more than 400 volunteers. Learn more about their work here.