A look at poverty on the West Side

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Poverty rates in Chicago are nearly twice the statewide rate – and in Lawndale they’re more than three times the state average.  That’s one revelation from a multimedia investigation of the impact of poverty on the West Side by the North Lawndale Community News.  The series talks to experts, examines nonprofits working on the problem, and tells the stories of individual struggles.

Poverty in North Lawndale is now estimated at 42 percent, and unemployment has doubled there in the past decade, from 13 to 26 percent, says community development consultant Valerie F. Leonard in an interview with Nicholas Short.

Leonard worked on a 2005 survey of community organizations in North Lawndale that identified 325 organizations, 40 percent of which provide youth, family, or job services.  After learning that an estimated 80,000 Chicagoans are eligible for public benefits but don’t access them, she developed a guide to community resources.

Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute tells Short that the U.S. has the highest poverty rate of any developed nation.  “And it’s not that these other countries…are richer than we are, it’s that they devote more of their resources to fighting poverty,” Austin says.  He emphasizes the need for more economic stimulus from the federal government, particularly on job creation and assistance to states and localities.

Research by the Center for American Progress shows that higher poverty levels are a drag on the nation’s economy, with lost workforce productivity and increased public expenditures due to poor health and high crime rates, Short reports.  Economist Mark Witte of Northwestern University explains that higher poverty levels add to the lack of demand that is stifling the economic recovery.

Nonprofits respond

West Side organizations are doing what they can.  Tali Bahkit reports on PEP-U, a job readiness program for juvenile offenders created five years ago by “concerned probation officers who wanted to make a difference.”

La Risa Lynch reports on West Side groups that were funded by a federal anti-violence program two years ago – and have continued the work despite the dollars drying up.  “In communities like ours, resources are few and far between, but challenges are always present,” says Tracie Worthy, director of the New Communities Program at Lawndale Christian Development Corporation.  LCDC has found new resources to expand its Hoops in the Hood program.

A community arts center located in the old firehouse which is also home to Tha House Hip Hop Church is continuing its youth video production program.  “You’ve got to find something that competes with the streets,” says Pastor Phil Jackson.  He’s hoping that local movie theaters will add to their preview lineups a short youth-produced video addressing negative stereotypes of urban youth.

And the Lawndale Amachi Mentoring Program is continuing its program hiring youth to do beautification projects – designed to build self-worth and community pride along with job experience for young people.  The organization mentors children whose parents are in the criminal justice system, and Dr.Betty Green says many suffer emotional trauma and anger which makes school more difficult for them.

Bill’s story

Nicholas Short and Guillermo Martinez tell the story of Bill, a 41-year-old former tatoo artist who’s lived on the streets for ten years after 15 years in prison.  His teeth are “falling apart,” he has Hepatitis B and C and sores on his body, he’s not allowed in restaurants or stores, and he says he’s used an indoor bathroom once in the past two weeks and had one shower this year.

But he’s “a gentle giant” who blames no one but himself for his situation.

Bill has tried repeatedly to break his drug habit, and discusses the difficulties of getting help:  he recently got a copy of his birth certificate and now needs a Social Security card so he can get a state ID – “You need ID to get an ID,” he says – with the goal of getting into an inpatient drug program.

His girlfriend and the mother of his son once ran the streets with him, but she managed to get clean and now manages a restaurant.  “I want to be a dad again,” Bill says.

Tali Bahkit talks with Donald Dukes, a 52-year-old man who’s survived a history of drugs and prison and now struggles to build a new life providing for his family.  He’s frustrated over the lack of support from – and the difficulty communicating with – elected officials who represent the community.

Bahkit also talks to young people who are stopped by the police, handcuffed and thoroughly searched simply because they walk past an area designated as a “hot spot.”  A young mother tells him this happens every day:  “They handcuff any African American male who walks in the neighborhood, without probable cause, and they totally violate these young people by checking them from head to toe.”

Young people are psychologically harmed an “feel as if the police are there to hurt them,” Bahkit comments.  And he asks whether police are acting as part of a system that is trying to remove black people from the West Side in order to make room for development.

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