GARY | After nearly two months, the garbage has been cleared from the abandoned homes across the street from Ella Joiner.
Joiner, 64, of Gary, said the homes at 1701 and 1705 McKinley St. have been abandoned for years, but it was just at the beginning of November when someone cleared out the mattresses, furniture, children's toys and other junk inside and dumped it on the lawn. Joiner, whose family bought her McKinley Street home when she was in grade school, didn't see who dumped the trash.
“I'm always looking,” Joiner said. “It must have been while I was at church.”
Despite Joiner's frequent calls to the city about the garbage blowing onto her property, the trash wasn't cleared until Monday, she said.
The city is aware of backlogs in handling service calls like Joiner's, but without more funding, can't increase the response time without adding staff. And there's no more funding to be had.
“We walked into a mountain of work. We still are pecking away at that, but realistically there is still a mountain of work to complete,” said Cozey Weatherspoon, general services director. “Our guys can go out and clean up an alley and a dump site and by the end of the week, that has been replaced by two more alleys, two more dump sites.”
General services has a crew of about 20 people tasked with everything from fixing potholes and removing downed trees to removing snow and cleaning up dump sites like those that were at 1701 and 1705 McKinley.
Volunteers from the Kimbrough Center — convicts working alongside general services crew in return for a letter of reference from Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson once they're released ê help, but by law can't operate certain equipment or heavy machinery.
This leaves about 20 people to cover more than 430 miles of road in a city rife with abandoned homes and illegal dump sites. They have a list they try to work through and are working on using GIS mapping software to better identify and prioritize trouble spots, but more calls keep coming and sometimes a scheduled cleanup needs to be dropped when emergencies arise.
“The one thing about that work is, it continues to grow day by day,” Weatherspoon said.
Trying to cope creatively
Freeman-Wilson's administration is looking to volunteers to take on projects the city can't afford. People often approach the mayor during her weekly meetings with residents, asking where they can help or offering to do particular projects such as, in one case, repaint the chipping sign on City Hall, city spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said.
The city launched an Adopt-a-Park program in May so groups, businesses, agencies and even individuals can help maintain areas in disrepair.
“Although the name is 'Adopt-a-Park,' people can also adopt a block, adopt a lot,” Whittington said.
The parks department is currently recruiting for “Snow Angels” to help shovel walks for elderly or disabled residents. People interested in helping can call (219) 886-7099.
But the work keeps piling up on the “unbelievable backlog” Weatherspoon said the administration inherited. Joiner said she often had trouble getting people from the city on the phone to ask them to pick up the garbage someone dumped on the lawns of the two homes across the street.
County records obtained in early December said neither 1701 nor 1705 McKinley had been sold in the last five years, but an attorney for the person listed as owning 1705 said his client found a short-sale buyer a few months ago.
The person those records list as owning 1701 McKinley could not be located for this story.