Sometimes, the people that help others need help too. Or maybe a new strategy.
As neighborhoods get redeveloped and wealthier people move in, some community organizations find they have to re-think their programs and services. West Town is experiencing this gentrification. The choices the organizations face are expand their reach beyond their traditional geography, or move. The Northwestern University Settlement Association, which offers roughly 70 programs to help primarily low-income families in West Town, has chosen the former option. It now dedicates more than half of its resources to extend services to new areas.
“We had to extend our geographics” said Jose Alatorre, director of group services. “We’ve just been walking and walking and walking, putting up flyers...this isn’t how it used to be.”
The construction of expensive condominiums has attracted more high-income residents without children to West Town. This has created a new dynamic in community services.
“The intimate relationship some services once had with their immediate neighborhood is changing,” said John J. Betancur, associate professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “The new residents of [West Town] are into other services, that may not deal with families or the youth.”
The other option for service agencies is to move where the need is greater.
The East Village Youth Program moved north of West Town to Avondale last December. Staff members wanted to reach more low-income families and children.
“Our numbers kept getting smaller in West Town, and we had to do something,” said Katherine Moone, program director at East Village. “[In Avondale], we’ve just been bombarded with students who need our service.”
For the first time in the history of their program, they have had to turn away students.
The East Village Youth Program has partnered with Mitchell Elementary school in West Town, because staff wanted to maintain some connection with the area. Other West Town organizations are using a reverse approach, staying in West Town and extending satellites to other communities, like Street Level Youth Media.
“We’ve seen some of our participation whither over 10 years,” said Manwah Lee, executive director of Street Level, which offers media workshops and homework help to West Town youth. “We’ve operated some satellite sites in the past, and we may need to do it again.”
Some officials are not convinced gentrification means service agencies have to move. Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes West Town, said organizations in his ward need to diversify their services to reach more people.
“If folks come in making six figures, they don’t need food pantries, but that doesn’t mean other places that help families and youth have to leave,” he said. “There is still a need and I think there always will be. How much need is the question.”
Alatorre said he is unsure whether Northwestern University Settlement Association will have to move or if the gentrification cycle will continue.
“The market isn’t good right now, so some of these people trying to flip their house over to get a return might not see it,” he said. “[Gentrification] might slow down in the end.”