Families scattered to different parts of town over the course of several years, with many using housing vouchers to find different homes. Many ended up staying near their dismantled complexes in homes or apartments on the South and West sides.
As Chicago dismantled the high-rises, the city became one of a handful with housing authorities that now have work requirements for public housing residents. Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has discussed expanding the Moving to Work program to more cities.
In Chicago, employment rates have risen among public housing residents and those receiving housing vouchers, though in some cases the rules require 15 to 20 hours of work.
BACK IN LAWNDALE, Joe Atkins was working in the 1980s, but his drug habit was growing.
He fathered a child out of wedlock and couldn’t bear the thought of being a dad and a drug addict. Late one night in April 1987, Atkins drank liquor to thin his blood, crawled into a bathtub, and slit his wrists. Seven hours later, he woke up.
“And I was depressed that I woke up,” he remembers. “I felt worthless because I had even failed at that.”
Atkins entered rehab. He relapsed, ended up in jail, and was homeless for a time. Finally, he discovered a Christian recovery program in another part of Chicago. He stayed for a year. His understanding of the gospel grew. His relationship with Christ deepened. And this time he stayed clean.
After reconnecting with longtime friend Wayne Gordon, a white pastor who founded Lawndale Community Church, Atkins helped start the Hope House as a ministry offshoot of the church.
The 50-bed facility serves as an intense discipleship and rehabilitation program for men. Twenty years later, Atkins still leads it, and he works as an associate pastor at the church. He’s married and has four children. He still lives in Lawndale.
And he is thankful for churches and ministries that stick it out in tough places, even when results aren’t immediate or easy.
Living in Lawndale still isn’t easy.
The Chicago Tribune reports the neighborhood ranked fourth out of 77 neighborhoods for violent crime in the month of June 2017. Nearly 40 percent of households are below poverty level.
On a Saturday night ride through North Lawndale, longtime pastor Phil Jackson leans out the window to chat with residents hanging out near a vacant lot on the corner where Martin Luther King Jr. once lived. At a nearby intersection, a hand-painted sign bears the names of people who have died in custody or during encounters with police: “Freddie … Sandra … Tamir … Akai.”
Despite the turmoil, Jackson is thankful he’s seen encouraging outcomes both at the Lawndale church and “The Firehouse,” a ministry for youth he runs nearby. Local kids have gotten scholarships, gone to college, and found good jobs. His lament: “It’s probably 3 percent of the people in Chicago shooting everybody, but those 3 percent cause so much havoc.”
Atkins is familiar with the havoc. One of his duties at the church is to provide funerals for families in the community. Since 2000, he’s conducted scores of funerals, many for victims of violence.
Does the ongoing turmoil in Lawndale discourage him?
After all, the church has worked for nearly 40 years, and the ministry has grown to include a major healthcare clinic and a wellness center that completes thousands of medical visits a year. There’s a legal-aid organization for locals and a learning center. A nonprofit development corporation offers affordable housing.
Still, problems abound. Poverty persists, businesses struggle to take root, and within 24 hours of my conversation with Atkins, three more young men would die in overnight shootings in Lawndale.
Atkins says he doesn’t fixate on results. He says the church and its ministries have seen progress, but they ultimately trust God for the fruit of their labors: “It ain’t our tree.”
Gordon, the pastor of the church, admits it’s harder to live in Lawndale today than when he moved in 40 years ago. The neighborhood has seen at least 32 murders this year.
But like Atkins, Gordon says he focuses on what the ministries have accomplished, not how many problems remain. Four decades ago, he says, he probably dreamed the church “could save all of Lawndale.” But Lawndale is big, problems are systemic, and progress is block-by-block.
He’s seen drug addicts become deacons, neighborhood residents embrace Christian faith, and local kids go to colleges across the country. “The most encouraging thing I can tell you is that the Bible is right,” he says. “If we live Biblically, it works. That’s what we’ve tried to do here.”
Atkins agrees, and as he leads the church’s 10:30 a.m. worship service, he finishes the same Psalm he read earlier in the day: “The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and widow. … Praise the LORD.”
LAMAR SIMMS thinks a lot about the fatherless.