AUBURN GRESHAM — A group of pastors and other leaders in the black community came to the defense of the state's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a $54-million anti-violence program which has come under attack after a blistering state audit.
William Holland, the state's auditor general, concluded in the audit last month that the program launched by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010 not only was "hastily" implemented, but also failed to target some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago.
But at a Monday news conference, the Rev. Michael Pfleger and the Rev. Corey Brooks joined mothers who lost their children to violence and community stakeholders in praising the "good" work the program has undertaken.
"There are good and bad things about every state program, but why must we always concentrate on the bad when it involves youths on the South and West Sides?" said Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham. "I am sick and tired of people who do not live in our community and have never been to our community telling us what's good for us."
The program, is "a collaboration of public and private agencies which provides pro-social opportunities to youth and parents in underserved communities in the western and southern suburbs of Chicago," according to its website.
St. Sabina received $200,000 from the program in 2010, which was used to provide summer jobs for youths and "to help touch the lives of many youths in this community," Pfleger said.
Providing jobs is a key way to fight violence in the community, others at the press conference said.
"Across the state 85 percent of black teens are unemployed. Across the city it is 89 percent," said Jack Wuest, executive director of the nonprofit Alternative Schools Network, citing a January report by his organization. "Young blacks males in the city living with families earning less than $20,000 a year are 95 percent unemployed. This is an epidemic that has to be addressed in a broader fashion."
Alice Palmer, a community activist, worked with 80 South Shore youths in programming supported by the initiative in 2010, including some who went on to get further training.
"These young people were well-received by businesses because they brought a positive message," she said. "We have one young lady who is in nursing school thanks to the training and motivation she received from the neighborhood program."
While Brooks' New Beginnings Church in Woodlawn did not receive any funds from the program, he credited it with providing jobs for youths at many organizations.
"I've always said we have to stop ganging up on each other and start ganging up on the problem," Brooks said.
The audit has led to many questions being raised about the program. The Sun-Time has reported that two teen hired to pass out anti-violence pamphlets were later accused in a Grand Crossing robbery in which one of the teens was killed. Another Sun-Times report noted that Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown's husband received nearly $150,000 through the program although it was unclear what work he performed.
The audits and and media attention has led Quinn's Republican opponents to label the program "cronyism."
But Pfleger, who wouldn't comment on the report about Brown's husband, disputed the criticism.
"So now there are those in Springfield, the suburbs and Downtown complaining about this program, but what they are really saying is that these at-risk youths are disposable," he said. "That we can just let them go ahead and die in the streets and ignore them."
Pfleger, however, said he was not brushing aside Holland's report.
"I am not saying there were no problems or mistakes made. I have not seen a program yet in this state where there were not some problems with it," Pfleger said.
To Andrew Holmes, a gun violence victim who is now a community activist, the program, by providing jobs and other activities for youths, could actually save some who live in violence-torn communities.
"The fewer funerals I have to attend for our young people, the better," Holmes said. "This program can make that happen."