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Lakeview residents debate youth center appeal
by Matt Simonette

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Ald. Tom Tunney was among the speakers at a Nov. 11 standing-room-only South East Lake View Neighbors (SELVN) meeting at Second Unitarian Church, 726 W. Barry Ave., on the future of Broadway Youth Center's (BYC) current location.

BYC is appealing the city's denial of a special-use permit for BYC's space at Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, 615 Wellington Ave.

SELVN will put forth a recommendation to Tunney's office on whether he should support the BYC appeal. A vote on that recommendation is expected in SELVN's December meeting. Tunney said Nov. 11 that he had not yet determined what his recommendation would be, but is trying to get the matter on the zoning board's docket for December.

"I've been steadfast in support, and steadfast in denial, of applications, and sometimes it goes my way, and sometimes it doesn't go my way," said Tunney.

The meeting was sometimes contentious, with some attendees expressing concerns about whether a facility like BYC's was secure, and whether it would draw crime to the neighborhood. Others welcomed BYC, and saw it as a reflection of the neighborhood's diverse character. A number of LGBT youth spoke as well. Audience members frequently burst into loud applause, and others snapped their fingers to show solidarity with points speakers were making. At one point, the audience became unruly and SELVN President Jan Sumrall threatened to close the meeting, after which many largely settled down.

A key question for many attendees was how Broadway Youth Center, Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC)—which oversees BYC's operations—and the city could have moved forward at the Wellington location without being clear on the actual zoning requirements.

"Chicago zoning requirements are complicated to say the least," said Maura McCauley, director of Homeless Prevention, Policy and Planning at the Chicago Dept. of Family and Support Services. "Typically when our department looks at zoning, we're looking at residential (zoning) for our housing programs. In all honesty, we have a new administration and we were not aware of the requirement for this location."

Tunney added that BYC had the right to go through the appeals process, just as anyone accused of a violation did.

BYC "would have the opportunity to go to administrative review like anybody else, and they would have to have their due process," he said. "It's like if you have a bad building, one doesn't shut down a bad building immediately—there's a process and we make efforts to get them in compliance. We're trying to get them to decide if this is the best location for them and for the city."

Michelle Wetzel, general counsel for HBHC, said there is a huge need to get help for LGBT youth who are homeless or unstably housed. "That's why (BYC is) located in Lakeview. We believe it would still be an issue, even if we moved. It would still exist here. It makes sense for us to be where the issue is located."

But Charlie Nelson, who said he has lived in Lakeview for 30 years, was among those who said the neighborhood was ill equipped to tackle those problems. He said that he had lived close to Center on Halsted and witnessed a "decline" in the surrounding area, and feared for the area at Wellington and Broadway.

"There's no security," Nelson said. "I've been in the middle of gang fights with close to 15 or 20 kids. There's no security for what goes on once those kids leave. I've had kid out on my front porch, smoking weed. I've called the police three times."

"It's not as though I speak without heart. I speak with a lot of passion, not only for the gay community but also for a great 'mixed' community. …(But) the church was not designed to take over this kind of responsibility," Nelson added.

Lakeview resident Kass Copeland, who lives behind Center on Halsted, said she similarly did not support the BYC location. "The reason I came here tonight is because of what has happened to Waveland Avenue, what has happened to my home the last six years. ... Young people are not respecting the standards of our community, and it's causing hardships for us and, more importantly, it's causing us to reject people that need our help."

Two audience members pointed to two incidents in 2012 when BYC staffers allegedly refused to cooperate with Chicago Police Department investigations, citing HIPAA regulations. Two others mentioned HBHC's alleged financial mismanagement issues, and asked how the organization could be accountable to the community when it could not be accountable to its lenders and benefactors.

"Those (police) incidents happened in 2012 when we were in a different location," said Wetzel. "We have worked very hard with the police since that time. We have had great meetings and conversations with the police and the alderman's office. … The only reason we get grant funding is because we're held accountable. We hold ourselves accountable and we hold our youth who utilize the space accountable."

"The services that we provide are very serious services for very serious problems," she added.

Several attendees took offense from a widely circulated email written by BYC Director Lara Brooks that they felt branded them as being racist and trans-phobic, among other labels. Wetzel said that the email was meant to convey personal impressions that staffers came away with from previous SELVN meetings, not apply labels to neighborhood residents.

"It was perhaps inflammatory language, which we regret, but you can't negate the feeling of the writer," Wetzel said. "Only that writer can tell you how her experience made her feel, and that was the point. It was to give other people coming to this meeting some context so that they might prepare themselves for what they might hear."

Many neighborhood residents said they welcomed BYC. Karen Ford said that when she moved to Lakeview, "it wasn't a fancy neighborhood" and that she'd enjoyed raising her children in a diverse area.

"I actually appreciate living where not everyone is rich," Ford added. She said she had two questions: "If they can't come to our neighborhood, where are they supposed to go, and what can I do to help?"

Jim Simonis, a member of Second Unitarian, added, "For at least five decades this has been a neighborhood for all colors and creeds who want to experience an alternative lifestyle. It would be good for many of our neighbors to remember that, unless you were here before the 1970s, the kids were here before you were. … And not only have we 'survived' them, this neighborhood has thrived."

Several youth present for the meeting said Lakeview was a natural choice for them to head for when they had been left with no other place to go to. "The handful of LGBTQ-competent organizations in the city exist in this neighborhood," said Jazz, who did not give her last name.

The next step before next month's meetings will be writing a Good Neighbor Agreement for BYC. The agreement is to be a "working document," according to Tunney, and will be a collaborative effort between BYC, SELVN, the local block club and Tunney's office. It would address operating hours, security issues, loitering issues and mandatory attendance at both CAPS and block club meetings. The agreement will be part of BYC's appeal and would be mandated should their approval be granted.

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