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Column Wed Nov 04 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was submitted by journalist Christopher Gray.
The roof leaks and large, brown circles mar the ceiling where the panels aren't missing entirely. People for Community Recovery is used to shabby quarters in the Altgeld Gardens housing project at the southern end of Chicago.
The environmental justice group's small office is crammed with desks and cluttered with papers. People for Community Recovery shares a mostly vacant commercial strip with a liquor store and a fried chicken outlet, set in the middle of a labyrinth of the identical barracks-style row houses of the Chicago Housing Authority project.
But lately, the office has a new feature: electric space heaters — after People's Gas turned off the organization's heat for non-payment.
People for Community Recovery, along with other South Side non-profit organizations, is fighting for its survival as the recession continues to bear down.
"This is the worst [financially] we've been in our 30-year history," said Cheryl Johnson, the director of the organization and daughter of Hazel Johnson, who founded the group in 1979 to draw environmental justice attention to Altgeld, which sits in a "toxic doughnut" off 130th Street amid rail yards, abandoned steel mills and human waste dumps.
One of the oldest groups of its kind, President Barack Obama got his political start as a community organizer assisting Hazel Johnson as they worked to force the CHA to remove cancer-causing asbestos insulation from the row houses. But today, as money from foundation grants dries up, the shoestring grassroots organization has fallen behind $900 just paying the heat bill.
A similar crisis has struck several miles north at the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center at 35th Street and King Drive. A cultural tourism and educational resource hub for Chicago's historic Black Belt, the visitors' center is also operating with the gas shut off and more than $3,000 owed to People's Gas.
"Most of my staff is senior citizens — I'm really concerned about that," said director Harold Lucas. "Right now, we're bundled up and working with space heaters and dialing for dollars with our friends."
The Bronzeville center also owes back sales tax to the city of Chicago for items sold in its gift shop. Lucas said the city has threatened to revoke the group's business license.
Lucas said state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Hyde Park) and state Rep. Will Burns (D-Bronzeville) have made a proposal to Gov. Pat Quinn to provide $99,000 for six months of general operating funds for the visitors' center. Since the proposal is less than $100,000, it does not need legislative approval and awaits only Quinn's signature.
The financial crisis has hit People for Community Recovery at a particularly bad time. Lately, Johnson said her work recently has been preoccupied with restoring general education at Altgeld's Carver High School, which was converted to a military academy five years ago as part of Chicago Public School's Renaissance 2010 initiative. She has not had time to reach out for financial help as much as she would like.
"They should have never taken away our neighborhood school," Johnson said. "We're just fighting to have Carver High School our neighborhood school."
Johnson believes the education and safety of Alrgeld teenagers would improve if they were not forced to take the bus five miles to Roseland's Fenger High School on 112th Street. The Far South Side has been particularly tense this school year, igniting with the brutal beating death of Derrion Albert of West Pullman on Sept. 25 outside Fenger.
Two of the teens accused in Albert's murder are from Altgeld, and Johnson said animosity is high between the projects kids and the kids living in houses in Roseland and West Pullman.
A group that works to directly engage the youth of Roseland and Altgeld has also been hit hard at the worst of times.
Kids Off the Block, at 116th and Michigan, had all of its utilities shut off at the end of August. Thanks to the media attention at the time from Chicago's Fox 32, Kids off the Block was able to get help with short-term funding to turn the gas, lights and phone back on, but long-term funding is still in question.
The group received a $20,000 community development block grant with the help of Ald. Anthony Beale, but to operate at full capacity, it would need about $200,000.
"We're praying for the funding to get through," said director Diane Latiker, who said Kids Off the Block is seeking help from both elected officials and private foundations, as well as God. "I just believe that He will give us the resources to continue next year."
Kids off the Block offers after-school programs and weekend retreats to deter teens from gangs, drugs, violence and crime. The group operates out of extra rooms in Latiker's home and has had to turn away kids this year. Latiker receives a salary but pays rent out of her own pocket.
"We have youth at Fenger who belong to the Ville [Roseland] and the Gardens," Latiker said. Last year, Kids Off the Block served 300 kids, but only 75 come after school this year, impeding efforts to deter youth violence. "I think we could change a whole lot. I believe that there will always be violence but I think we could change a lot if the youth had some alternatives."
— by Christopher Gray