ENGLEWOOD — The City of Chicago said Clara Kirk owes $41,969 for fines accumulated on three Englewood properties she owns.
The 72-year-old mother of five and grandmother of seven said if she is forced to pay the fines, she might have to close two shelters she founded 26 years ago in the same neighborhood.
Kirk, a longtime Englewood resident, is founder and executive director of the West Englewood United Organization, which runs Clara’s House, a transitional shelter where women stay up to 120 days, and Clara’s Place, a 13-unit apartment building for long-term occupants.
The widow said she has been running the shelters for women and children without any grants since 2005, but admits doing so has been difficult.
“I do what I can to keep the doors open, but it is a struggle. I would be grateful for any help I could get. This [organization] has been my legacy. God has given me a gift to help people, and that is all that I know how to do,” Kirk said, fighting tears as she described the joy she gets from helping people.
Felicia Bates, 33, said if the shelters close she would have to find another one for her and her two sons, ages 12 and 14.
“I am working on my GED at Kennedy-King College and want to get into public housing. I have been looking for a job, but no one seems to be hiring,” said Bates, who has lived at the shelter since 2007. “Off hand though, I don’t know where I would go. Another shelter I guess because I don’t have any family here. Both of my parents are dead.”
Walk-ins are not accepted for security reasons, Kirk said. Instead, only occupants referred by government agencies or social service organizations are permitted.
Kirk said it takes roughly $275,000 a year to run Clara’s House, which is fully occupied, and $375,000 for Clara’s Place, which has 37 occupants, even though it could accommodate 59 people. Kirk said she does not have enough money to feed 59 people, which is why Clara’s Place it is not full.
In 2001, Kirk planned to open a men’s shelter, and the City of Chicago donated a house for this cause. But the house, at 6430 S. Seeley Ave., needed repairs Kirk said she couldn't afford.
In January 2006, the city took the house back after Kirk failed to make the repairs, said Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department. The house was sold in August 2006, Drew said.
But between 2005 and 2006, Kirk was cited by the city’s Buildings Department for violations on the house, said Susan Massel, a spokeswoman for the Buildings Department. The citations were for a broken window and not securing the vacant property.
Drew said Kirk's total fines include tickets she received in 2010 and 2012 for the two shelters as well. And she failed to appear at several administrative hearings where the fines possibly could have been reduced, he said.
The tickets for the shelters included broken windows, doors, uncovered electrical outlets, a damaged back porch and a bedbug infestation. Kirk said all those violations had been remedied.
Still, the fines remain, and Kirk said since 2005 she has been unable to afford to pay her staff of 13, who have worked as volunteers as she tries to get back on her feet.
Volunteer and shelter resident Nadine Sanders, 58, is hoping the shelter stays open long enough for her to collect her Social Security.
“I understand she cannot pay us and is doing everything she can to keep the doors open,” said Sanders, who has two daughters, ages 19 and 22. “I used to work part-time for UPS, but I wasn't making enough to pay my rent, so I got evicted and ended up here.”
In a letter dated March 13, 2013, Nick Lucius, an assistant corporation counsel for the city, made Kirk an offer to settle her fines for $20,984, but that offer expired Wednesday. Previously, Kirk said she offered to settle the violations for $1,000, but Drew said that offer was unacceptable.
City officials said they have been more than fair with Kirk.
"In addition to being a substantial discount of the remaining debt, [the] settlement included waiving all of the fines that occurred at 6430 S. Seeley after January 3, 2006, when a deed was recorded from Ms. Kirk back to the city," Drew said.
Because Kirk owes the city a debt, she said her organization is no longer eligible to receive grants from the city, state, county or federal governments.
Shawn Warner, a legal adviser to Kirk, said the city intercepted a $6,250 grant the organization received from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.
The total grant was for $25,000 but was to be paid out in four disbursements, Warner said.
Drew confirmed that the city received $2,568.89 that was intercepted by the state, as allowed by state law, and it was applied to her debt.
Shelter resident Justine Sanders, 41, said she still is learning how to live independently after 10 years of living at the shelter with her 17-year-old son.
“It would be a difficult transition for me because I do not have my GED yet, and I still need to learn some job skills,” Sanders said. “I love Ms. Kirk for the patience she has had with me and for giving me and my son a roof over our heads all these years.”