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Heroes of The COVID Crisis: How Christine Achre of Primo Center helped provide shelter for homeless children during the pandemic

An Interview With Phil La Duke

Originally published by Authority Magazine and Thrive Global

picture of Christine in frame on table

Practice Active Listening. A large part of effectively supporting our community is by practicing active listening. We practice active listening every day with our families and learn a lot more about their needs, concerns, and general feelings about their situation. We have to lend an ear before we can lend a hand in many cases, especially during a crisis when people are at their most vulnerable. It’s one of the many ways we can effectively move forward.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Achre. Christine is the CEO of Primo Center, a comprehensive social services organization located in Chicago and focused on breaking the cycle of homelessness in families. As a trained clinician with expertise in trauma-informed care, Ms. Achre has provided services to homeless families since 1995 and has focused on program development, research, and clinical practice, geared towards the implementation of best practices for homeless families. She has also worked within the children’s mental health sector and has participated in the dialogue on the administration and financing for a comprehensive system of care for children. She has been actively involved with a number of key stakeholder groups in Chicago and has given several presentations at local, state, national, and international conferences as well as presented at a congressional briefing in the US on trauma-informed care within the homeless family system. She serves as an advisory board member for the Bassuk Center, and will be co-chairing a steering committee with its founder, Dr. Ellen Bassuk, focused on the adoption of best practices for homeless families throughout the US. Most recently she served on Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s health and human services transition committee and on the statewide advisory committee for Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) implementation in Illinois.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, outside of the Pittsburgh area. My community was mainly blue-collar steelworkers and other heavy industry workers, including my father. One highlight that stuck out from my formative years was witnessing the death of heavy industry in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. The closure of my father’s company in 1983 resulted in his very early retirement. Despite the financial challenges my family faced, there was always a strong sense of community instilled in all of us growing up. We were taught to always appreciate the blessings bestowed upon us and to help those most in need. This was instilled as a core value in me at such an early age and continues to carry with me through my work today.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton. It resonated so much with me because I saw the multitude of values instilled upon me as a child intertwined in the message of the book. Clinton wrote the book around the time I had the good fortune of working in a leadership role in helping homeless children and their families. So many of the lessons I gleaned from this book became the foundation upon which I built my career path. Much of my early learning and the values I was taught as a child in my community back home came to life on the pages of this book.

For me, it all comes back to helping the young and most vulnerable people in our society. The simple message of It Takes a Village, as described by former Secretary of State Clinton, is as relevant as ever. That message is this:

“We are all in this together. As long as we face our challenges and never give up on our children, we can rebuild a world where justice and hope and peace can overcome the forces of terror and fear. We can restore our children’s stake in the American Dream, and the promise that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed in this country. But there is much work to do, and it will take every member of the village to get it done.”

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child” — Forest Witcraft

As I mentioned before, growing up in a small blue-collar community gave me a sense of family, community, and service to others. The sacrifices I saw my parents make to ensure that I would have everything I needed to succeed has been forever etched into my memory. My parents made these sacrifices for me to be able to reach my full potential and to be able to attend college when neither of them did.

Not only did my parents self-sacrifice for me, but they also gave what they could to help others in need. My family was nurturing and loving and strove to be of service to others through the church, in the neighborhood, and the community as a whole. We joked that my parents ran a free boarding home for relatives and friends in crisis who needed a comfortable bed to sleep in and home-cooked meals to eat.

Whether we are facing the increased challenges brought on by this pandemic, facing institutional racism and other social justice ills, or just trying to adjust and manage to living life as a homeless child, I am inspired by our children to be the best I can be so that I might be able to assist them in being the best they can be.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Primo Center is the largest provider of services and shelter for homeless children and their families in Chicago. Serving those most vulnerable, the Center’s record of helping families gain independence far exceeds the national average. Our mission is to empower our families to become productive, responsible, and independent members of their community by addressing the causes for homelessness and caring for children across all life domains — health, education, and housing.

It is challenging to keep this population safe and healthy as it is one of the most vulnerable communities. Many clients have underlying and pre-existing health conditions that put them even more at risk.

COVID-19 is also exposing Chicago’s deep economic and health inequities that have plagued Black and Brown communities on the South and West sides of the city for generations. There is a 30-year life expectancy gap between residents living in the North and South and West sides of Chicago. This disparity can be attributed to social determinants of health inequities, such as housing instability and homelessness, lack of essential items, including healthy food, and access to efficient physical and mental health care services. More than 95% of Primo Center’s residents are African-American, a population that is more likely to have pre-existing health conditions.

Primo Center has quickly adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic to keep clients and staff safe, continue providing the critical services to clients, and maintaining a sense of normalcy while minimizing the spread of COVID-19.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

By way of training, I am a clinician. My original interest was to be a clinician working in children’s welfare for children that had been abused. I had my “aha moment” 25 years ago when I saw the high prevalence of trauma that homeless children experienced. From there, I forged a new path and began working with homeless children and their families, which eventually brought me to Primo Center. After I made the transition, I later realized that my story had come full circle when I learned, during a hometown visit with my aunt and uncle, that my own mom and uncles had been homeless as children. This was something my mom had never shared with me, maybe because of the shame she may have associated with the experience. This made me realize that this is probably why I had a subconscious drive to work with homeless children.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Admittedly, I am most proud when we can permanently end homelessness for a family. As this question is about an individual impacted by our cause, I would like to share the story of Amber (not her real name for privacy).

Amber was a young 23-year-old mother of two children, both under the age of five. She moved into our permanent housing program three years ago after living in our shelter program for two years. She struggled with substance use, as well as mental illness — all secondary to a lifetime of trauma, abandonment, and loss — and needed a supportive living environment. Primo Center was able to offer this to her via our permanent supportive housing program.

One day, our property manager mentioned to the case manager that Amber never locked her apartment door and was concerned for Amber’s safety. The case manager talked to Amber and inquired as to why she was not locking her door. It turned out that Amber had never had keys, or an opportunity to live behind a locked door, in her entire life. She was raised in a homeless shelter with her mother, then went into the child welfare residential system, followed by a short stint with friends — before she found her way to the Primo Center shelter. Can you imagine being an adult and never knowing the experience of having an apartment of your own, a door to lock or any real possessions? The fact that she was able to provide a home environment for her children and permanently ended the cycle of homelessness for her family is always the greatest achievement for our agency and my work!

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

There is no more powerful gift than to change the life of a child and family by helping provide shelter and a pathway out of homelessness. Your support can help achieve the goal to have zero homeless children in Chicago. Individuals can:

  1. Follow Primo Center on social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter) to stay up-to-date with us

  2. Make a monetary donation on https://www.primocenter.org/donate/

  3. Make a product donation from our wish list. Resources are becoming scarce or at inflated prices and Primo Center is extremely grateful for our individual and community supporters who have donated health groceries, masks, gloves, and other essential items to keep our families safe and healthy.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Many things that are out of our control — focus on what you can control. When I first started, I was a child welfare caseworker and lost a lot of sleep trying to help the families I served. I was constantly trying to solve every problem, even if I could not. I was on hyper-alert mode at all times. Over the years, I realigned my focus to stand beside and advocate with my staff for better social conditions for our communities.

  2. Humor can be a great coping mechanism. Now more than ever, we do our best to bring smiles to our families and staff. With the help of partners like the Birthday Party Project and Harmony Hope & Healing, we are able to provide birthday presents, music programs and virtual moments of joy.

  3. Advocate — one voice can spread to many voices. Ending child homelessness doesn’t stop at Primo Center. We also share our model and insights with partners in other cities. For example, I serve as a technical advisor to teams in New York City to address family homelessness.

  4. Work hard, don’t take the easy way out. The easiest path doesn’t always yield the best results. We instituted a culture where no family would be asked to leave due to. The easy path for us would have been to ask difficult families to leave, but we understand to address the needs of highly vulnerable families and end the cycle of homelessness, we need to address each family member’s traumatic exposure, empower parents to support their children and address children’s developmental needs. We meet our families where they are. Much of our work involves earning the trust of our clients. That trust doesn’t come easily as many children have experienced trauma before coming to Primo Center. It can take a lot of hard work and effort, but we gladly take it on to partner with each family to address their individual needs to find their best solution.

  5. Set goals, revise goals, but always have a goal — don’t settle, be uncomfortable. At Primo Center, we push ourselves to be more creative and innovative. As a result, our agency grew from being one of the smallest family homeless organizations to one of the largest. We grew our staff from roughly 12 to 95 employees in the span of 12 years, raised our budget from $315,000 to approximately $10 Million, and increased the number of beds in interim housing to 350.

    Primo Center’s success is distinguished by its 360-degree approach to care called High Fidelity Wraparound (HFW), which is recognized nationally for helping break the cycle of homelessness for children and families. It aids the most at-risk children. This approach has allowed us to consistently place more than 90% of our families in permanent housing, with only a 5% rate of return to homelessness, compared to an industry standard of 55–65% return rate in other programs. In addition, all of our families transition from our program with income and benefits, including employment. However, our work doesn’t end there — we believe it is possible to get to zero homeless children in Chicago.

From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious during this tumultuous time? Please explain your answers.

  1. Prioritize mental health and trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care is at the core of Primo Center’s work and success in breaking the cycle of homelessness. Most homeless women and children have experienced some form of violence or abuse prior to coming to Primo Center. It’s vital that we create an environment that is conducive to healing these traumas with access to mental health services.
    Primo Center’s 360-degree approach to care called, High Fidelity Wraparound (HFW), is a proven, research-based method of engaging and supporting vulnerable children and their families and access to mental health services is a key component of the approach. I encourage those who are feeling anxious to seek counseling from a licensed professional to help them cope during this time.

  2. Find your peace in doing something that brings you a sense of calm and understanding. In a time where anxiety is heightened, I’m grateful for the technology that keeps us connected and organizations that help maintain our mental health. For example, I’m an avid spinner and was thrilled that my local studio, CycleBar was able to loan bikes during the quarantine. Being able to exercise helps me to be a better leader and support my team.

  3. Lean into your community. The pandemic has intensified our clients’ challenges and created new obstacles for us. Nonetheless, our number one priority is maintaining the safety and health of our clients, staff, and volunteers as we continue to adapt our programming to meet their needs. It’s a challenging time, but I’m encouraged by the rallying support of our community partners, donors, and the Chicago community.

    I am so humbled by the outpouring of support we have received from our gracious community, including local businesses, churches, organizations, and individuals. Their support has made the following possible:

    • The ability to provide ALL of our students with the technical equipment needed to complete schoolwork remotely
    • The maintenance of high safety standards at all of our shelters due to the ongoing donations of masks/gloves, sanitizing products and funds which enable the purchase of hospital- grade antibacterial solutions
    • The provision of healthy groceries, toiletries, diapers and other basic essentials for our families
    • The ability to provide a sense of normalcy for families by celebrating holidays (like Mother’s Day) birthdays and school milestones during a rather difficult time

    There is still a long road ahead of us and the needs of our most vulnerable families will only continue to grow. I am confident that our community will help us meet those challenges.

  4. Stay connected. While COVID-19 has restricted us from being with one another in the usual ways, it’s important that we maintain a sense of normalcy and stay connected with one another — even as we look ahead and transition into a post-COVID-19 world.
    Similarly, empowering our families doesn’t end after they leave our interim housing facilities. For example, after Primo Center families transition into permanent housing, they often stay in touch and continue to benefit from Primo Center family support services.

  5. Practice Active Listening. A large part of effectively supporting our community is by practicing active listening. We practice active listening every day with our families and learn a lot more about their needs, concerns, and general feelings about their situation. We have to lend an ear before we can lend a hand in many cases, especially during a crisis when people are at their most vulnerable. It’s one of the many ways we can effectively move forward.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Find something that you care deeply about and get involved.

It is far easier to sit on the sideline and watch while your peers take a stand for their own beliefs. Dive into your passion and make a positive impact. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Even if the change is slow going, it will be far more rewarding than sitting idly by and doing nothing at all.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ending child homelessness — 1 in 5 children are homeless or insecurely housed. In Chicago alone, there are more than 20,000 children experiencing homelessness. When children lack housing stability, they are more likely to experience homelessness as an adult. We are committed to Chicago becoming the first major U.S. city to end homelessness for children and families.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Hands down, the person with whom I would like to share eggs Benedict with is Coach Mike Krzyzewski, nicknamed “Coach K” of the Duke University Men’s Basketball Team. Not only is Coach K the coach of my favorite college basketball program, but he is also an extremely compelling person. As I’ve observed him over the years, I’ve noticed similarities between us.

Coach K comes from the same gritty, blue-collar background, yet he has been able to take the best of that background and catapult himself to become one of the greatest sports leaders — and I would say, general leaders — of our generation. His core, which focuses on discipline, teamwork, and accountability, are life lessons that I try to emulate. I would love the opportunity to have breakfast or lunch with him to learn how season after season, he is consistently able to pull the best out of his players and his coaches. I’d ask him how he handles adversity and self-doubt to remain at the top of his game, and most importantly, his success off the court through his work with the Emily K. Center.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow us on social media to stay up-to-date with Primo Center and consider making a donation today to support our COVID-19 response efforts. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn. Thank you for your continued support.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

About The Author: Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 1000 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His first book is a visceral, no-holds-barred look at worker safety, I Know My Shoes Are Untied! Mind Your Own Business. An Iconoclast’s View of Workers’ Safety. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. His third book, Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands is expected in June followed by Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic due to be released in August. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com

One Comment

Julia Jacob

Christine, thank you for sharing your story! I have been wondering for years how you became involved with Primo Center. Thank you for your commitment to helping women, children, and entire families.

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