Community leaders, youth, social service workers and politicians gathered at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, on Aug. 30 for a contentious, emotional town hall discussion regarding LGBT youth.
There have been an increasing number of complaints over the past few years regarding the youth who hang out along Halsted Street in Boystown, particularly late at night. That youth are attracted to what many describe as the only safe haven in Chicagoland is nothing new.
But recent Northalsted Area Merchant Association ( NAMA ) internal e-mails and conversations among certain area business owners, residents and members of various associations have caused much tension in the larger LGBT community. Some business owners and residents want to clean up the streets, and are citing youths hanging out in Boystown as a direct cause of a supposed increase in crime. Others disagree, and believe these complaints and concerns are rooted in racism and a general misunderstanding of youth.
Business owners feel youth a 'problem'
Several people, namely area business owners, expressed concerns about what they feel is an increase in crime and noise in the neighborhood, although police have stated in the past that overall crime in the 23rd District is down.
Roscoe's Jim Ludwig added that he felt 'intimidated' by the 'bands of gangs' hanging out along Halsted Street.
Other businesses members and a few residents said they were concerned about the safety of their patrons and themselves, and were inconvenienced by noise created by youth.
Stu Zirin of Minibar, who shot a controversial YouTube video of youth hanging around late at night, said, ' [ Halsted ] Street changes dramatically' around 2 or 4 a.m.
According to police at the meeting, the number of youth out late at night this summer has 'absolutely doubled' from last year.
Officer Jose Rios, the 23rd District LGBT liaison, said he worked the midnight shift for two months in order to learn more and speak with the youth.
'Ninety-nine percent of them probably weren't doing anything wrong,' Rios said.
'Of [ the youth ] , I'd say 98 percent were African-American and the other 2 percent Puerto Rican. They said they were there because they can't be who they want to be on the South and West sides,' he added.
While the number of youths have increased, so have the number of crimes called in by residents and businesses. Police said they now receive over 1,000 calls every month. Among them are noise complaints and minor vandalism.
They added, however, that there is no evidence that points to more youths being out as the cause of great numbers of crimes.
In response to comments from some that the youth are intimidating, Let's Talk Let's Test Foundation's Lloyd Kelly quipped,'These people that intimidate you, what do they look like?' Kelly, among many others present, felt that concerns over the youth were a result of racist thinking. After all, the majority of the youth hanging out on Halsted late at night in recent years have been African-American and Latino youth.
Prior to the meeting, Piehole owner and NAMA member Doug Brandt expressed concern to Windy City Times that a few of the association's members were sending internal e-mails that could be perceived as racist. He added that a majority of members were silent.
'Lakeview has a reputation of being homogeneous,' Brandt said. 'Instead of trying to turn this into a gated community, we should be more welcoming to everyone.'
Many spoke out that evening, addressing what they feel is blatant racism.
'There is the issue of race in here, and the issue that we don't know how to deal with young people,' said activist Renae Ogletree, a resident of the area who said adults in the area cause her the most headaches.
Many nodded in agreement when Ogletree suggested that adults in the room needed to understand issues of race and the needs of the youth, and embrace them instead of being intimidated by them.
There were adults present who have dealt with racism in Lakeview first-hand, such as Vernita Gray of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, who said that she and Ogletree could not get a cab the night of a Center dinner.
'I think a lot of people in this community need to check their racist attitude,' said Gray, who was met with applause.
Kelly, when contacted the following day, said he felt 'disgusted' by what transpired at the meeting. 'The meeting accomplished what the business owners and associations wanted to accomplish. They set in everybody's mind that African-American youth are a problem in the area,' he said.
What youth want
One suggestion to decrease the number of youths on the streets: Give them something to do. Many agreed that the LGBT community needs to work together to create more safe spaces and programming for youth for the late hours.
The entire back row on the theater was composed of teens and young adults from Youth Pride Center ( YPC ) . One youth stated, 'They don't want services; they just need somewhere to be…and that's simply all there is to it.' The other youths nodded in agreement, and also suggested that a 24-hour safe space is needed.
Although there are safe spaces such as Broadway Youth Center, YPC and Café Pride, Chicago Department of Public Health's Lora Branch noted that many safe spaces she went to when she was young have disappeared. Many felt the community needs to re-create these spaces.
Many in the room failed to notice until the end of the meeting that halfway through the discussion, all of the YPC youths had left. Ogletree and Kelly thought that the youths felt unwelcome and ignored.
'We had all these youth here, and they were shut out,' Ogletree said.
The Center's role
Some suggested the new Center on Halsted, which is located in the heart of the area most of these youths hang out, should be open longer and offer more programs and activities for youth. Others suggested that spaces also be created on the South and West sides of the city.
'If we got $20 million for the infrastructure, we can find a few dollars for services needed by these kids,' 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney said.
'This isn't the Center's problem, but Center, you are part of the community so you are part of the solution,' Ogletree said.
Jose Rivera of the Chicago Department of Human Services promised to recalibrate the outreach team assigned to the Center, and 'give the Center more resources.' He also said the department would sit down with the Center and local organizations to collaborate on these issues.
He added that more money would help alleviate homelessness among LGBT youths.
While there was disagreement on what the ultimate solution ( s ) should be, there was agreement on the next steps.
Of importance was banding the community together to work towards a solution; forming a task force; ensuring the youth were involved in the process; and making sure the community gets its facts and statistics straight.
Sidetrack owner and longtime activist Art Johnston best summed up the evening, in many people's opinion, and some found hope in his words. 'This is a good problem,' he said. 'We have folks who feel safe here. It doesn't mean we don't need to work on some things. But there could be worse things.' He added that he recalled a time when Lakeview wasn't safe for anyone.
Johnston said the community should be happy that many are coming out at younger ages and migrating to Lakeview, an area they feel is safe. 'These are our children. I'm glad for all of us that there is a place here.'