EAST CHICAGO — Nine months ago, more than 300 families living at the West Calumet Housing Complex were told by the city’s mayor they need to leave, following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s discovery of dangerously high levels of lead in the soil.
Some families left immediately. Others eventually packed up their things and moved on with financial assistance from HUD and the local housing authority.
But the residents who remain now are asking housing officials for even more time to find new, permanent homes after the East Chicago Housing Authority this week assigned them temporary housing elsewhere in town and as far as Chicago to make way for the West Calumet property’s demolition.
The complex, built in the early 1970s on the footprint of a former lead smelter, is located within the EPA’s USS Lead Superfund site.
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Community members say they hope added public pressure — beginning with a Friday campaign to flood the phones of local, state and federal politicians, and ending with a 1 p.m. protest at City Hall and the East Chicago Housing Authority — will allow families to stay put while they seek housing.
'I will not let them'
As of Thursday, about 67 families remain. Of those, 17 are in the process of moving into a new place, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal and local housing officials have said it’s becoming an issue of health and public safety due to the lead in the soil and the high vacancy rates at the 346-unit complex.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said in a statement he would never advocate moving residents involuntarily "unless we faced an issue of public safety."
"Waiting is not a feasible option, because each day that passes results in a delay in our ability to make the changes needed to improve the neighborhood and to remove any environmental hazards," he said.
But mothers like Demetra Turner, 44, say her family’s displacement to Chicago’s South Side, even temporarily, is a more serious threat to safety. Turner said she moved from Chicago about a decade ago with her son and daughter to escape gang violence.
“I didn’t want that kind of life for my boys. I will not take my kids back to Chicago,” a visibly upset Turner said Wednesday during a community meeting in East Chicago.
“I have a son. He is a good kid. I ain’t never had to get him out of jail. No drug selling. No gang bangin’. And I plan on keeping them that way … I will not let them send me back to Chicago.”
Moving across state lines will force Turner to pull her 11-year-old daughter with learning disabilities out of school. Turner herself would lose her job at Lukoil in East Chicago, she said.
Turner said she moved to West Calumet just two months before learning about the lead in the soil. Quickly finding housing that’s safe and suitable for her family is easier said than done, she said.
“They don’t care. They don’t have to live in these places ... I saw a place (Wednesday) morning in Hammond. It’s not livable. I contacted 11 places last week in Hammond. Not one of them accepted Section 8. This is the problem I’ve been encountering,” Turner said.
The East Chicago Housing Authority plans to move families April 3 through 7. Rent abatement ends March 31. The Times filed a public records request this week with the ECHA to obtain a copy of the moving company contract.
A civil rights agreement reached last year with the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law requires the local housing authority to test units for lead hazards prior to moving families in.
About 30 families have been assigned to units in East Chicago. The Times this week filed a public records request seeking lead inspection documents that show ECHA properly tested those properties for lead contamination.
A Chicago-based housing justice watchdog group said other placements are in Chicago — at least one as far north as East Garfield Park.
Claudette Jackson, 68, said she fears moving to East Chicago's Harborside area due to the ongoing gang feuds with the Calumet neighborhood.
"My 18-year-old grandson would be out there every day. I don't want him in that kind of environment," Jackson said.
HUD said Thursday the emergency transfers should be considered as "a last resort," but Sherry Hunter, a community activist with family at West Calumet, said the notice letters handed out Tuesday will scare families into settling for the first place they find.
“They trying to put fear into you guys, making it seem like you have no hope, that you have to take the first place they give you because you have nowhere else to go,” Hunter told families Wednesday. “The main thing is let them know you have kids in school, and as long as you have children in school, you’re not moving anywhere.”
HUD said Thursday the situation is fluid, and as families continue to find permanent units, more families assigned to places in Illinois may instead be relocated to units available in East Chicago or in Indiana.
HUD on Thursday told The Times ECHA now will provide free transportation to and from school for families with children in East Chicago schools who end up having to move to Illinois temporarily.
That offer of transportation was not included in letters delivered to households on Tuesday.
Filing a grievance
Emily Coffey, a staff attorney with the Shriver Center, said the ECHA can potentially place residents into eviction proceedings if they refuse the unit without filing a grievance within the 10-day window. HUD said residents have 10 business days from Monday, the day the letter was dated and mailed.
Residents could file a grievance if they can demonstrate the temporary unit is not accessible to a person’s source of employment, education, job training, day care or an educational program for children with disabilities, according to the Shriver Center. They also could file a grievance if a household member has a disability and the unit is not accessible or if they have a child younger than 6 and the unit contains lead-based paint.
The family also must demonstrate that accepting the offer “will place a family member’s life, health or safety in jeopardy,” according to the Shriver Center.
“We don’t want any of you to end up homeless over this. That is not the outcome that we’ve been fighting for this entire time,” Coffey told residents.
“I didn’t want that kind of life for my boys. I will not take my kids back to Chicago. I have a son. He is a good kid. I ain’t never had to get him out of jail. No drug selling. No gang bangin’. And I plan on keeping them that way … I will not let them send me back to Chicago.” — Demetra Turner, 44, a West Calumet Housing Complex resident