EAST CHICAGO — The U.S. Department of Urban Housing and Development is leaving “no stone unturned” in search of more dollars to move residents out of the lead-contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex.
James Cunningham, deputy regional administrator for HUD, said the federal agency is working closely with the East Chicago Housing Authority to relocate more than 1,000 residents, including nearly 700 children, and has identified the need for an additional $1.2 million, pulling from federal, state and local resources, including the ECHA’s capital fund.
HUD already released $1.9 million to ECHA to permanently relocate residents. The additional funds would help pay for security deposits, application fees, moving transportation and packing materials, Cunningham said in an interview Tuesday during an open house at Carrie Gosch Elementary School.
His comments came the day after the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law filed a housing discrimination complaint, alleging the ECHA’s plan for relocating residents violates federal civil rights laws. The complaint calls the ECHA’s relocation process “chaotic and troubling.”
“This is unprecedented,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think any housing authority of any size could handle issuing  vouchers in three weeks and do it well. So, going into this process, we knew that the ECHA would need assistance.”
At Tuesday’s open house, Cunningham and other representatives from federal, state and local agencies were available to answer questions about lead-soil contamination, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s dust sampling and cleaning of homes, soiling sampling and housing assistance, health and nutrition.
West Calumet resident Barbara Anderson sought answers Tuesday about moving assistance. She said she didn’t get a straight answer from HUD’s counselors on site, but they told her officials were working on supplying her with movers and other assistance.
“I was curious about movers, like the actual movers to help me move my things,” Anderson said. “It’s stressful, not knowing what help we’re going to get.”
Last week, HUD officials arrived in East Chicago to provide technical assistance, including housing counseling.
Carmen Gill, a West Calumet resident since March 2011, said she scheduled a deep cleaning of her home with the EPA during Tuesday’s open house. Gill said she is worried about bringing potentially lead-contaminated furniture to a new place.
‘A humanitarian crisis’
Three law firms representing families, including 85 children, that either live or once lived within the West Housing complex held a news conference Tuesday at Homewood Suites in Munster to discuss the investigation into the source of the contamination and the responsibility of state, local and federal agencies to notify residents sooner.
Rooth, with the Merrillville-based Theodoros and Rooth P.C., said generations of families have been exposed to a century’s worth of contamination.
“There is, without exaggeration, a humanitarian crisis in our midst,” he said.
Shantel Allen, who spoke at the news conference, said her youngest of five children tested at 33 micrograms per deciliter — or more than six times the CDC’s threshold for action — in February 2015.
She said she wasn’t made aware of the results until she received a letter from the Indiana Department of Health in July — the same month she and other residents received a letter from the mayor recommending they relocate due to the high lead and arsenic levels.
She said she “panicked.”
“Everything made sense to us now, as to why our children have been sick, why they vomit, they have poor appetite. It just all makes sense now because we all know they’ve been exposed to lead,” Allen said.
Local, state and federal agencies knew for years of the dangerous lead levels, and potential for harm to children and families, Rooth said.
EPA test results from July show Allen’s top layer of soil tested at the highest lead concentrations of 4,510 parts per million, much higher than the EPA’s 400 ppm threshold for residential use.
“We were the last ones to find out about the lead and arsenic, and we’re the ones who live there,” she said.
Pardieck Law Firm and Cohen and Malad, also representing residents, were also present at the news conference.