EAST GARFIELD PARK — According to Omarion Ammons' mother and aunt, there was a time when they wouldn't have walked down their block, much less allow the Webster Elementary fifth grader to play across the street.
A change in the neighborhood surrounding St. Louis Park is noticeable since the park was "taken over" by an annual youth basketball tournament, Tanisha Ammons said.
The three-division HomeCourt tournament, part of a slew of free community services from East Garfield Park-based Breakthrough Urban Ministries, is attended by as many as 150 eager neighborhood kids and their families Fridays in July and August.
It's earned a reputation among parents as the reason for a drop in summer crime, which, according to LISC Chicago and Chicago Police Department crime statistics, are reduced roughly in half within a block of St. Louis Park during the months when the HomeCourt tournament is in session.
Seeing Breakthrough's takeover of St. Louis Park is what persuaded Ammons to move in across the street about a year ago, she said, recalling a time when she would have never considered living in the area.
"I'm glad they see something more for our kids," she said. "It used to be so bad here you couldn't walk down the block.
"[Breakthrough] took over the park ... now everybody knows, so they don't really hang out as much.
Leaving a safer space for basketball-obsessed kids like her son, 10-year-old Omarion — small forward on HomeCourt's team, Syracuse, who dreams of being a power forward for the Miami Heat — to practice their skills without the "drugs and guns" that she worries about, she said.
"This is a high-stress environment," said Bill Curry, chief operating officer at Breakthrough and HomeCourt founder. "We're having success, but we've not yet changed what's normal. We're taking the long-term view.
"We don't control the environment fully."
Instead, a mix of about a dozen staff and mentors from the community cordon off the space — bordered by a railroad, empty lots, a glass-shattered abandoned home and brick residential buildings — allowing the community in and keeping crime out.
According to LISC Chicago, a nonprofit organization that operates similar youth-oriented programs across the city, crime incidents have fallen steadily around the park in recent years; from 64 incidents in 2008 — 33 during HomeCourt summer months — to 35 incidents in 2011 — 15 during HomeCourt.
According to Breakthrough staff, the group plans to extend its safety net in the coming years. Services at their headquarters, 402 N. St. Louis Ave., include a men's and women's homeless shelter, a fresh food market, GED services, family workshops, as well as arts, sciences and athletics programs to East Garfield Park residents.
When the neighborhood experienced a bloody Fourth of July weekend in which nine people, including 21-year-old Steve Mabins, were shot on a single block during three consecutive days of gunfire, Breakthrough staff mourned the loss of one of their own.
Curry has vivid memories of mentoring Mabins in the decade before the young man was murdered near the 2800 block of West Flournoy Street July 5.
According to Curry, Mabins played basketball around St. Louis Park, the site of Homecourt, located six blocks north of where he died.
During a fast-paced Friday HomeCourt game between a group of local 10-year-olds, Curry recalled the night before Mabins was fatally shot. A Breakthrough employee had stopped to check on him at a corner where Mabins was known to hang out.
It had been years since Mabins attended Breakthrough events as a child, but the news of his death the next day came as a shock, Curry said.
In a comment via the DNAinfo Chicago article on Mabins' murder, Curry told the story of a concert-bound road trip to Madison, Wis., where Mabins had entertained Curry and a group of teens forced to pull over for the night in a snowstorm.
Mabins may not have made "all the right choices," but Curry said he'd "always remember Stevie for the kindness he had in him."
He said he hopes programs like HomeCourt can provide East Garfield Park youth, like Omarion, with the "hope that Stevie lost."
On Friday, HomeCourt teams faced off in a championship game before heading to a citywide PlayStreets tournament Saturday afternoon.