WASHINGTON PARK — A Washington Park veterans center next to a potential site of the Barack Obama presidential library is fighting to stay open after getting hit with 32 building code violations during a single inspection.
The RTW Veterans Center has been cited for everything from having military flags in front of the three-story graystone at 5536 S. Martin Luther King Drive, to the floors in the kitchen being wood instead of tile.
“We’re getting a lot of intense heat after the announcement of the Obama library,” said Arnetha Gholston-Habeel, director of the center, who acknowledged some of the violations were serious but said she was surprised by the sheer number of issues the city found fault with. “We don’t know who, but someone is turning up the heat.”
The veterans center is the only property not controlled by the University of Chicago or the city on a stretch of King Drive between 54th and 56th streets and Garfield Boulevard from King Drive to Prairie Avenue adjacent to the potential site of the presidential library in the neighborhood’s namesake park.
RTW serves about 4,500 meals a month to veterans around the Washington Park neighborhood, many of whom are homeless, and provides transportation to work, clothing, job training and temporary housing.
Krystal Burns, an assistant to the director at the veterans center, estimated repairs would cost $56,000 and would require the center to devote all its limited resources to fundraising and repairs. She said the center receives no government grants.
She said the contractors who came and estimated $20,000 to fix the back porch and $3,200 for the windows have only fed the paranoia at the veterans center.
“Our contractors came through and said, ‘Someone is f---ing with you,’” Burns said.
Daniel “Doc” Habeel, who helps run the center with his wife, Arnetha Gholston-Habeel, was getting ready on Veterans Day to take food out to several veterans at their homes and help them with heat that had been shut off.
He admitted that the center needs work. Inspectors said they found rats and raw sewage flooding the basements, faulty smoke detectors and cracked walls.
Windows were smashed out with bricks in the summer, allegedly by a man who was kicked out of the veterans center for violating its no-alcohol and no-drugs policy, according to Habeel.
The windows still have not been fixed and veterans coming for food have to take it to-go because of the difficulties keeping the building heated.
“This is the reality of homeless veterans — yes, it’s ugly,” Habeel said.
The inspection happened on April 1 in response to a complaint, according to the Department of Buildings’ website. City offices were closed Wednesday and officials were not available to comment on the situation.
Habeel said neighbors that have complained in the past could have called for the inspection, but he said he was not ruling out others interested in the property because of its value if the Obama library comes to Washington Park. He admitted he didn't know who that might be.
“Why come to buy us out when they can just send the city?” Habeel said. “It’s easier to negotiate with a man when you first put him in a chokehold.”
Habeel said city inspectors have come through the center before and not found so many problems. The city’s website did not show any inspections at the veteran's center prior to April 1.
The inspection happened during a period where city officials were finishing a process of transferring park property to the city because of complaints by the Obama Foundation that the University of Chicago’s two proposed sites in Washington and Jackson parks were not entirely controlled by the university and the city. A final site has not been chosen.
The code violations have now been referred to Cook County Circuit Court and the veterans center will find out at a Dec. 1 court date how long they have to fix the problems before the center is sent into receivership. The center will also find out if and when they will have to pay $16,000 a day in fines for not fixing the violations.
The whole situation has shaken many of the veterans who use the center and the volunteers who help out there. But Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) said the center would be OK if it makes an effort to correct the problems.
“Traditionally, as long as someone is doing work on fixing the violations and demonstrates they are making progress, they are allowed to continue that progress,” said Cochran. “They won’t go away and will keep on delivering services."
He said he would need to look into the code violations and declined to comment on whether there was anything out of the ordinary with the inspection.
Cochran said he had talked to the center’s leaders about relocating elsewhere in the neighborhood.
“A bigger space that’s more accommodating, where they can deliver better quality and diversity of services would be ideal,” Cochran said.
Gholston-Habeel and others at the center said they were not yet ready to talk about moving and the inspection has left them unsure of who they can trust.
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