by Kevin Stark
Akeeshea Daniels pulls an emergency relocation letter from the East Chicago Housing Authority out of a thick folder of documents. She points to where it says that the city of East Chicago has hired movers "to transport your belongings." The destination? Altgeld Gardens, the far-south-side public housing development once dubbed Chicago's "toxic doughnut" because of its proximity to landfills, sewage treatment plants, and toxic chemical factories—a surprising destination for a family fleeing a home contaminated with lead and arsenic.
The upcoming relocation of roughly 50 families—Daniels's included—from the lead-contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex is the latest chapter in an ongoing crisis. In August, East Chicago mayor Anthony Copeland sent a letter to West Calumet's approximately 1,100 residents informing them that they were being exposed to toxic metals in the ground around their homes. They needed to move, Copeland wrote, and the public housing complex would be demolished.
The majority of residents have now left, but those who remained received emergency transfer mailers on March 20; around 30 families were told that they would be moved to Illinois, although at least nine families have since found permanent housing elsewhere.
But the news that at least three families would be moved to Altgeld Gardens, with its decades-long history of fighting the disproportionate impact of pollution on its residents, came as a shock to many.
Sherry Hunter, an organizer with Calumet Lives Matter, grew up in East Chicago and lives a short distance from West Calumet. A close friend of Daniels's, Hunter is concerned about her moving to Altgeld Gardens.
"They are surrounded by industrial plants," she says. "There are no stores. They are in the middle of all of these industrial areas and railroads. There is more industry around there than there is here."
If residents weren't happy with their relocation assignment, they had until yesterday to file a grievance with the housing authority; otherwise they'll be forced to move starting today.
East Chicago housing officials didn't return calls for comment on this story and haven't released numbers as to how many families will be moved to Altgeld Gardens as opposed to Wentworth Gardens, a public housing complex located near Sox Park or elsewhere in Illinois.
Moving across state lines also poses special challenges, says Emily Coffey, an attorney with the Sargent Shriver Center on National Poverty Law who's representing the families. Such a move could "upend support networks and cause families to go without vital services." Parents could lose their jobs, school will be disrupted, and badly needed health care could be put in jeopardy. "No one should be forced to move to another state," she says.
In November, Coffey reached a settlement in a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that alleged systemic housing discrimination on the part of the East Chicago Housing Authority. HUD has provided the authority with $1.9 million to administer housing vouchers, provide relocation counselors, and pay for other moving expenses.
A HUD spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that the situation in East Chicago is "ever changing," and noted that more homes in East Chicago have become available since the emergency mailer was sent out. A move to Illinois would be temporary and a last resort, the spokesperson wrote, as residents could continue to search for permanent housing in Indiana if they wanted.
"HUD's desire is that these families do not have to cross state lines if at all possible," the spokesperson wrote, "but it will ultimately depend on how many units are available in East Chicago. . . . Hopefully all or most families who want to ultimately remain in Indiana will be able to do so."
But East Chicago doesn't have enough affordable housing for all the residents of West Calumet— a fact that became clear in the early days of the crisis. And residents attempting to move complain of landlords that refuse to accept housing vouchers—a kind of discrimination that's illegal if common in Chicago but not expressly forbidden in Indiana.
And paradoxically, some residents want to stay, despite the danger posed by exposure to lead and arsenic.
West Calumet was built in the 1960s and '70s atop a defunct lead smelter. Even at low levels of exposure, lead attacks the central nervous system of children and can disrupt brain development, cause shortened attention spans, and lead to hypertension, impaired kidneys, and poor academic performance.
The arrival of warm spring weather means that children will be eager to venture outside—even though the city says it's too dangerous for them to play in their yards.
Altgeld, meanwhile, is known as the birthplace of the environmental justice movement, thanks to the efforts of activist Hazel Johnson, who worked for decades to bring attention to the effects of pollution on the mostly African-American residents of her community. President Barack Obama began his career as a organizer there, working with residents to strip the housing complex of asbestos.
Today, Johnson's daughter, Cheryl Johnson, continues her mother's work as the head of the grassroots advocacy group People for Community Recovery. Although the Chicago Housing Authority just finished renovating more than 200 units in Altgeld, Cheryl says she's worried about East Chicago children moving to an area where the air quality is poor and there are still environmental hazards.
"At least I know those are lead-safe homes for families to move into," she says.
In the basement of the public library, Daniels wonders aloud what life will be like in Altgeld Gardens. She hasn't visited yet, and didn't know anything about it until she searched the Internet for the address she found on her letter. She doesn't own a car, and doesn't know how she'll get to the supermarket, or where her kids will go to the doctor's office-or even where those places are in Chicago.
"I'm not happy with that," she says.
Located 16 miles south of the Loop and bound by railroad tracks, expressways, and a turn of the Little Calumet River, Riverdale, the community that's home to Altgeld, is one of Chicago's most isolated neighborhoods. Only a single bus, the #34 South Michigan, picks up nearby—a far cry from East Chicago, where public transportation is free and more abundant. Many of the neighborhood's working residents spend more than an hour commuting.
The East Chicago Housing Authority has said it will provide transportation so that East Chicago students can finish out the school year without transferring schools, but Daniels is skeptical.
"There is no written plan for us as parents," she says.
The housing authority hasn't, however, made a similar offer to job seekers. At 41 percent, Riverdale has one of the city's highest unemployment rates, and the neighborhood lacks job opportunities.
"We are still going through redevelopment," Johnson says.
Amenities are also in short supply.
"We have a liquor store and a fast-food joint, but we don't have a grocery store," says Johnson. "We have a small market. They can buy milk and meat products, but we don't have a full-fledged store."
Still, Johnson says, "Our arms are open."
"We'll get you the resources that you need," she says, addressing West Calumet's residents directly. "Have trust and faith in God and community and you'll be all right."
West Calumet residents, she says, "are welcome in Altgeld Gardens."