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Broadway Youth Center's Future Uncertain as Neighbors Rail Against It

By Serena Dai | October 16, 2013 7:54am
 Broadway Youth Center, an affiliate of Howard Brown Health Center, is currently operating out of the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Broadway Youth Center
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LAKEVIEW — Broadway Youth Center may not have a home in Lakeview if a group of frustrated neighbors has its way.

The social and health services agency that serves LGBT youths ages 12-24 is appealing the city's denial of a special-use permit for it to operate in the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, 615 W. Wellington Ave. — a decision partly hinging on the approval of neighborhood group South East Lake View neighbors.

Last month, neighbors said they would offer support as long as they had veto power on any changes in operating hours.

But at a contentious meeting this week of more than 50 people, some residents seemed less welcoming. They said if the center does not find a way to control its clients after hours, they will fight the permit's approval, leaving the Howard Brown Health Center affiliate without a home.

The center's services attract "riffraff," and while its mission is admirable, its clients cause trouble in the neighborhood after hours, some neighbors said. Broadway Youth Center should be held accountable for the trouble, they said.

"Until this is addressed, I will personally fight this to get your expulsion," said resident Melissa Cox, who was loudly applauded.

For years, the youth center was at 3179 Broadway, before relocating earlier this year — and not without baggage. Neighbors complained that the center's clients loitered at the busy Belmont and Broadway intersection, intimidating locals. 

Now that it's at the church, residents have raised similar complaints, with some saying they don't want a repeat of the Broadway/Belmont experience.

One woman said two people went past her fence to smoke pot on her front stoop. A man said he caught people smoking pot in a nearby alley and then had a break-in two weeks later, an incident he blamed on being near the center. 

Barbara Tieder, senior director of development and communications at Howard Brown, countered that "it's just not fair" to blame all violence in the neighborhod on the center.

They're doing what they can with preventative services, said Tieder and Lara Brooks, the center's director. They also hold regular community meetings with clients to talk about the ramifications of loitering, Brooks said, and someone watches the sidewalk outside the church.

"[Criminals are] coming to the neighborhood to commit crimes because this is a neighborhood that has some wealth in it," Tieder said. "We're doing our best to mitigate it."

Brooks said the center is too understaffed to hire staff to patrol a wider area, as some neighbors requested. Many of the clients are homeless or in rough life situations, and there's "no easy answer" to the question of how to manage them after they've left the building, she said.

"We're busting our butts to get folks in emergency housing for the evening," she said.

The answers did little to satisfy the raucous crowd, which had to be told multiple times by the group's president Jan Sumrall to speak one at a time. 

"I'm sure it's true that you don't have the staff to [patrol]," resident John Rafkin said. "I don't think that's an adequate answer. You owe it to the neighborhood to patrol during your hours of operation."

The neighborhood group ultimately asked that Broadway Youth Center to come back with clarifications. The center applied for a community center special permit when a medical-use permit may be more appropriate, Rafkin said.

South East Lake View Neighbors members will then vote on approving or rejecting the permit in November or December.  To be eligible to vote, residents must live within the boundaries — Diversey, Halsted, Belmont and the lake — and must turn in their membership application 14 days before the vote.

Brooks said she will return at the next meeting with more answers, including whether the permit classification is correct, after talking with her team.

Center officials have looked for other spaces this year without luck and would like to stay in the church for the long term, Brooks said.

"I do think we've been working really hard," Brooks said. "We'll continue to work really hard. I don't have all the answers today."

Despite the agitation of many neighbors, several people voiced support for the center's services. Neighbors don't hold bar owners accountable for drunken drivers, one man said, and people don't demand shutting down Wrigley Field because of people who might get in accidents while leaving.

Seems like people are holding the center to a higher standard than other area businesses, he said.

"Just because someone is homeless or is gay, bisexual or transgender," he said, "doesn’t mean they’re a criminal."