ROGERS PARK — With at least 20 shootings so far this year in Rogers Park, keeping the city's children safe continues to be one of the neighborhood's top priorities and biggest challenges.
For the nearly 350 community children and teens who utilize services at the Howard Area Community Center, whose main building sits at 7648 N. Paulina St., making the one-mile journey to its youth center at 1527 W. Morse Ave. can be risky for one main reason: The campuses are separated by dividing lines of two warring factions within the Gangster Disciples.
To the north of Howard, the LOC, or Loyalty Over Cash, group claims turf, while the Insane Cutthroat Gangsters (ICGs) patrol the area near Morse — causing problems for those caught in between.
"There is an active gang war going on," said Director of Youth Services Robert Conlon, who said the fighting has been going on for at least four or five years. "So for youth that live in the north of Howard area, it is difficult to be able to walk the short blocks that it is to get down here. There's definitely real danger, and the same to walk from Morse up to Howard Street."
Linze Rice says the center tries to transport the kids safely:
In order to deal with the ongoing conflict between its buildings, Conlon said the community center tries to offer services "wherever they can" and at times provide transportation to kids between facilities.
"We help youth any way we can," he said. "We're very much understanding, too, when [kids] say they can't always come to the center, we can meet them where they're at."
The center's main building is located north of Howard Street, an area that's been the site of several of this year's shootings in the area.
Conlon said the center offers programming at a number of community locations throughout the neighborhood as a way to reach more kids, including at Gale Math and Science Academy — which has been the site of multiple shootings over the years.
In June, two people were shot within hours of each other, one fatally, one block north of Howard on Jonquil Terrace. The fatal shooting occurred mere feet from school grounds at Gale as third-graders played outside during recess and was witnessed by both parents and students.
Police later arrested a 17-year-old for the deadly shooting — a teen who may have been the target of an earlier shooting that left car windows shattered — linking the victim and shooter to the ongoing gang war involving slain rapper Shaquon Thomas, aka Young Pappy.
In March another person was shot in an alley in the 7700 block of North Paulina, just blocks from the community center.
Conlon said facilities at Jordan Community School, between Howard and Morse, are also used by the community center.
In May, the 14-year-old son of an Uptown Ceasefire worker was wounded by a bullet on his hand while playing with friends in a nearby park following a basketball tournament. In July, a 36-year old homeless man identified as Kevin Davis was killed in the 7400 block of North Rogers Avenue, just over a block from Jordan.
In May, a 22-year-old man was shot in the 1300 block of West Greenleaf, a half-mile or less from the community group's Morse youth center.
A "Safe Passage" sign at Gale Elementary. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
Conlon said the center wants to add more facilities, possibly satellite locations, in addition to current properties to help cast a wider net and serve more people as opposed to closing either Howard or Morse buildings and relocating to avoid gang faction lines.
"'Cause you'd have the same problem, if we could just throw this building over to north of Howard, then that would be great, we'd have different youth coming to our building, but then where would Morse kids go? They couldn't navigate up this far," he said.
Conlon said his group talks with kids about what safety strategies they can use, and said that while he recognizes the police "are very important in our community," not all youth are very trusting of the police department — adding it's a goal of the center to help "bridge the gap" of mistrust between kids and officers in Rogers Park.
Conlon said the group has been represented at CAPS and aldermanic meetings in the neighborhood.
"We keep in constant communication with the alderman and the police," he said, adding that he knows a number of the area's beat officers and has spoken with 24th district commanders in the past about crime.
Kevin O'Neil, chief of staff for Ald. Joe Moore (49th), said to his knowledge, his office hadn't been "asked about this complex issue in years," but said in general, the alderman's office would try to facilitate a meeting between the organization and 24th district police, "and certainly ask for special attention to the area during the times HACC is moving the kids."
24th District Commander Roberto Nieves did not respond to request for comment.
Conlon said the kids at the youth center aren't oblivious to the violence and often want to share their opinions and strategy ideas on how to better understand, combat and prevent a number of problems they see and experience in the neighborhood and throughout the city.
"Issues come up ... whatever issues they want to talk about ... street violence is often our No. 1 thing that teens want to talk about because it really does affect their lives," Conlon said. "Other themes come up, too. Domestic violence sometimes comes up as a theme youth want to talk about."
He said the group works with kids as young as third-fifth graders talking with them about social justice in a way that engages the program's participants to critically think about an array of criminal and civil justice related topics.
For now in Rogers Park, Conlon said his team will continue its mission of helping the community's kids become stronger individuals, critical thinkers and more understanding of the complicated and potentially deadly challenges the neighborhood faces.
He said he also hopes that by expanding into more locations, his organization can better serve its residents.
"Our mission is to serve the youth," Conlon said. "Ideally it'd be great to have multiple locations so we could service the entire community."
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