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East Chicago Residents Want More Time, Help To Move From Lead-Tainted Homes

Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting

The West Calumet neighborhood in East Chicago, Ind. is a federally designated clean-up site — a Superfund. Its soil contains lead and arsenic at levels that, residents recently learned, are much worse than expected.  

Now, hundreds of families have been told to find new homes by November. But many residents — and their lawyers — say they can't move that fast without more help.

Keesha Daniels is one such resident. Her street is quiet and empty, with her and her neighbors stuck inside since July. They're avoiding the lead-contaminated ground outside, and putting their lives into boxes.

"I'm packing up, but I don't have anywhere to go," she says.

Emergency Relocation

Daniels moved here 12 years ago, before her youngest son was born. She says she only learned about the lead this year. It’s 100 times higher than the safe limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Keesha Daniels hasn't found a new apartment yet, but she's already taken the decorations off the walls of her West Calumet home.

When the EPA reported these levels to the city this summer, the mayor decided to demolish West Calumet Housing Complex. The East Chicago Housing Authority gave out $1.9 million in federal housing vouchers to residents, and told them they had 60 to 120 days to move, depending on extensions.

But many say they can't do it that fast without more resources. Daniels says even her initial briefing on the move — when she got her housing voucher — was confusing. 

"I was like — we can read, but I'm still not understanding the process of how you go about Section 8," Daniels says.

Section 8 housing vouchers cover part of a person's rent, based on need — but the process is complicated, even though it's been streamlined for this emergency. On top of those vouchers, the housing authority says it'll use another $1.2 million in savings and state funds to cover moving expenses. 

But Daniels hasn't seen any of that money yet. She's even still paying rent at West Calumet. 

"If We Were Another Race"

While she apartment-hunts, Daniels and others are looking into legal action.

Credit Nick Janzen / Indiana Public Broadcasting
The East Chicago Housing Authority's main office is inside West Calumet Housing complex. Workers there referred comment to the city's attorney.

Attorney Kate Walz is with the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which represents Daniels, five other residents and the Calumet Lives Matter organization in an administrative complaint — outside of court — to federal fair housing officials. 

"Because these moves are happening so quickly … these families need the time and the opportunity to potentially move again to communities who could support them," Walz says.

Walz says they want immediate assistance and long-term support for the displaced residents. Plus, she says, the complainants want to know why they're in this situation now, when the EPA has been studying the contamination from an old USS Lead smelting plant since 1985. 

Daniels says she's frustrated that she and her neighbors — most of them are black — weren't told earlier about how serious the risk was.

"I feel like, if we were another race, maybe things would have been done quicker, or somebody would have noticed a lot sooner," she says. "I don't care if we are considered middle class or poor, or whatever — we have children, and we want to see our children grow up and live wealthy lives like everyone else."

Fair vs. Fast

The Shriver Center's complaint to the Department of Housing and Urban Development was followed, about a month later, by a separate class-action discrimination lawsuit from lawyer in Hammond. Alex Mendoza represents 13 more residents who are suing the mayor and housing authority, and big businesses tasked with cleaning up the lead.

"They're just giving them vouchers as if that makes everything OK," Mendoza says. "These people have to leave their homes, and it's not adequate."

His lawsuit does not specifically name HUD, which funds and enforces the deadlines and extensions on the housing vouchers. Mendoza calls that a strategic decision, but declined to elaborate further.

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Two months after notifying residents they'd have to move, the city has given out this packet of written relocation details.

East Chicago City Attorney Carla Morgan says the city cannot comment on pending litigation, but she did address the demolition plan and relocation timeline in an earlier interview, before the suit was filed. 

"We've had to try to balance what's fair versus what's best for people's health," Morgan said.

HUD spokeswoman Gina Rodriguez confirmed in an email that they've allowed the city skip some organizational steps of the moving process "in light of imminent health and safety concerns." 

Rodriguez also noted that the housing authority "administers the housing vouchers."

Slow Progress

The housing authority did recently give residents a packet of information with details on how to get moving expenses covered, and a list, from 2014, of 50 landlords with units available. On a recent weekday, only two landlords who answered the phone said they had open apartments. Ten others said they'd had to turn away dozens of callers from West Calumet Housing Complex.

That's why Daniels says she hopes to move out of her hometown of East Chicago to Hammond. She and her younger son — who has asthma, ADHD and allergies — have tested positive for low levels of lead, while her next oldest — who has to repeat his senior year due to ongoing health issues — tested negative. The third boy doesn't live at home.

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Keesha Daniels and her sons have lived in this five-bedroom apartment home -- West Calumet's only one-story, accessible unit -- for 12 years.

Still, Daniels, who has rheumatoid arthritis and is on disability, says she's worried.

"If I would have ever been informed about anything with lead or arsenic, I would have left a long time ago," she says. "I would have never subjected my children to this, or myself, because I don't know what I've done to them that probably won't be able to be fixed, especially my twelve-year-old."

He's lived his whole life in an apartment where the EPA also found lead and arsenic at around 100 times above safe levels. 

Daniels plans to take the EPA up on its complex-wide offer to deep-clean the place, and her furniture, before she takes it with her wherever she moves.

Read, hear and watch all of Indiana Public Broadcasting's East Chicago coverage at Lakeshore Public Media, and check back for updates to this developing story. This story has been updated.

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