All posts by carlygraf2018

Chicago’s green space: Inequitable for 100 years

By: Carly Graf
Medill Reports

This July marks 100 years since 17-year-old Eugene Williams drowned in Lake Michigan. The black teenager unknowingly drifted across 29th street while on a raft—crossing the unofficial demarcation between the white and black sides of a South Side beach. White beach-goers threw rocks at him and knocked him unconscious, causing the boy who couldn’t  swim to drown. No arrests were made despite eyewitnesses.

“Race riots that followed were representative of broader racial clashes over Black Chicagoans’ asserting their rights to recreational space,” said Brian McCammack, environmental history professor at Lake Forest College and author of Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. “Similar clashes happened at Washington and Jackson Parks, among others, as African-Americans flooded into the South Side and, almost always, African-Americans were the victims of white aggressors.” Continue reading

$50 million expansion of Divvy program targets under-served neighborhoods

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

Divvy will receive a sizeable direct investment to build dock stations in every city ward, modernize its bicycle fleet and create a job training program for youth and ex-offenders, should the City Council green light the proposal.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) recommended these programs as part of an amendment to the existing contract between Divvy and its operator, which was recently purchased by popular ride share company Lyft, Inc., last month.

The $50 million will come directly from Lyft. All new equipment will be purchased directly by the company, but existing infrastructure will remain in city ownership, guaranteeing control over any significant fare pricing changes and fare promotions, according to the statement from the mayor’s office. Continue reading

Chicago bike shops welcome new wave cyclists

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

Thanks to 200-miles of bike lanes, the newly renovated Lakefront Trail and more than 130,000 spots to park and lock your bike, Chicago consistently ranks among America’s most bicycle-friendly cities, according to ratings in Bicycle Magazine. But that friendliness wanes if you’re black, Latino or a woman looking to ride.

Yes, we have Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Streets for Chicago 2020 Plan to increase the number of bike lanes citywide. And Divvy’s bike share D4E plan awards a $5 membership to qualifying low-income riders. But, still, a race and gender gap persists. Continue reading

Almost two years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s drug crisis grows more severe

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports 

It’s near 4 a.m. when the green minivan carrying two volunteers turns the corner and spots a woman hailing them down. Emmanuel, the driver and volunteer leader of tonight’s outreach program, parks on a street corner, and two women come rushing out from the shadows of a storefront porch.

Natalia, dressed in a short jean skirt and black tank top revealing a chronic skin rash, asks in a raspy voice for coffee, juice and an extra sandwich to take back to her friend. The other woman, clad in a mismatched terrycloth jumpsuit and missing most of her teeth, brings over a handful of used needles to exchange for clean ones.

Iniciativa Comunitaria, a San Juan-based public health non-profit, runs overnight outreaches to bring food and drink to the city’s homeless population, many of whom are chronic users of drugs including heroin or methamphetamine. Continue reading

Calls for change galvanize parents and educators at first CPS board meeting after mayoral election

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

Fed up with disinvestment in their schools, South and Southeast Side parents and educators told members of Chicago’s Board of Education that Wednesday’s meeting might be one of their last.

The pending mayoral runoff between Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot bolstered their hopes for change as each candidate touts a progressive education reform platforms, including the creation of an elected school board.

“Last night, the people of Chicago voted for change. They voted to turn the page on Rahm Emanuel’s administration that’s been closing schools and ignoring black children and their families,” said Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) President Jesse Sharkey. “The people in Chicago have spoken, and it’s time for the people in power to listen.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey speaks on the poor school conditions in the South and Southeast Side of Chicago. (Carly Graf/Medill)

Sharkey’s comments came during a CTU-led press conference preceding the meeting of the school board, whose members are appointed by the mayor.  A group of about 15 Southeast Side residents gathered with teachers to discuss classroom overcrowding, inadequate funding for things like special education programs and lack of community involvement.

One parent from John M. Smyth Elementary School demanded an explanation for the sale of land adjacent to the school at Roosevelt Road and Morgan Street to St. Ignatius College Prep, a Catholic school across the street.

Others voiced complaints of inequity between North and South Side schools.

“No wealthy person, like someone who works in these high-rise buildings downtown, would send their kids to schools in these conditions,” Sharkey said, referring to conditions that many South Siders face.

Chants of “Whose schools? Our schools.” followed the group into the building where the meeting moderators emphasized a more celebratory tone.

Protesters chant “Whose schools? Our schools.”(Carly Graf/Medill)

Morgan Park High School’s lauded jazz ensemble performed, the board congratulated South Loop’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School Chess Team on its recent state title, and Ronnie Coleman from Jones College Prep received his national school counselor of the year award.

The public comment period began with Alderman Carrie Austin (34th) praising Chicago Public School (CPS) CEO Janice Jackson, a sentiment that would be echoed by others throughout the morning. The sentiment may preempt any changes in her position by the next mayor, although neither runoff candidate has publicly commented on Jackson’s future.

However, the public comment quickly devolved into testimony from educators and parents alike about severe issues plaguing schools in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Health concerns led the way.

Parents from the of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education recounted stories of insulin-dependent children receiving improper care from unqualified temp agency nurses at schools. President Frank Clark responded by noting the national nursing shortage, but said those conditions don’t change the responsibility of the board to ensure children receive adequate care.

About a dozen parents from George Washington Elementary School in East Side attributed their kids’ chronic migraines, allergies and asthma to decrepit, unsafe building conditions. The CPS Chief Health Office mentioned he had inspected the building and recommended inspecting the HVAC system, assessing air quality, removing old carpet and providing more hand sanitizer.

Finally, parents from Virgil Grissom Elementary School in Hegewisch criticized dramatic overcrowding at their school as harmful to special education students, a concern that Clark said “wasn’t being ignored.”

“We are one step closer to electing a mayor who supports an elected school board, but your work here is not done,” said Andrea Tolzmann, one of Raise Your Hand’s speakers.

A parent from John M. Smyth Elementary School raised concerns about overcrowding and special education resources. (Carly Graf/Medill)

CPS Security Chief Jadine Chou and CTU members diverged starkly in viewpoints on how to best guarantee student safety. Chou articulated the district’s vision for safe school certification, a better-trained cadre of security officers and anti-bullying efforts.

“Before you start thinking about pouring all this money into stronger police presence, I’m saying this: we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We need restorative justice programs, nurses, and social workers,” countered Michael Brunson, CTU recording secretary.

Charter schools took the heat, too.

“Educators shouldn’t have to strike to get what they need,” said Chris Baehrend, chair of the charter division of CTU-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, mentioning the successful strike of 175 teachers from Chicago International Charter Schools earlier this month for better working conditions and class size caps.

“I’m asking the board to do their job and bring accountability to charter organizations,” he said.

Both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot support ending the continued proliferation of charter schools and investing resources into needy public schools instead.

Despite uncertainty around the particulars, one thing’s for sure: there will be a new mayor in May, and that’s likely to mean sweeping changes to CPS. However, many who attended Wednesday’s meeting demanded board members not neglect their responsibilities in the interim.

“You don’t have to wait for a new mayor to address these capacity issues, you don’t have to wait for a new mayor to fix these oversight issues and you don’t have to wait for a new mayor to make things better. You can do that now,” Brunson said to applause.

Photo at top: Chicago Teachers Union members gather host a press conference outside Chicago Public School headquarters on Tuesday. (Carly Graf/Medill)

Trump calls border migrants a “tremendous onslaught,” sparking concerns from mental health experts

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

President Donald Trump described the U.S. and Mexican boundary as “our very dangerous southern border,” during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, reigniting concerns about punitive immigration practices and mental health impacts.

His rallying cry included a call to Congress to put the “ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers and human traffickers out of business.”

In the shadow of the longest government shutdown in history, spurred by a political standoff over funding for a border wall, scrutiny of the administration’s policy rekindled also after a January a report from the Office of the Inspector General. The report revealed that thousands more children may have been taken from parents than initially reported.

Continue reading

Everyone running for mayor wants to fix Chicago’s mental healthcare system. But how?

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

With the 2019 mayoral election fast approaching, what to do about the vast numbers of Chicagoans lacking adequate access to mental health treatment remains a huge question for candidates.

Since the City Council voted to close six public mental health clinics in 2012 as part of budget austerity measures, the Chicago Department of Public Health has reported an uptick in the number of hospitalizations due to behavioral mood disorders. Research by Saint Anthony’s Hospital in North Lawndale demonstrated that a majority of residents in Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods who seek mental health care find it to be too costly or must wait for upwards of six months for an appointment. One in three inmates at Cook County Jail suffers from mental illness, according to reporting in The Atlantic.

It’s an ever-present crisis that speaks to underlying themes of inequity and disinvestment in minority neighborhoods. While the City Council’s recent decision to create an exploratory task force marks a first step, it’s hardly comprehensive. The next mayor will set the economic agenda and decide how much (or little) to devote in reform.

Here’s a rundown of each candidate’s plans based on our interviews, their campaign websites and our scraping of major Chicago media.

1. Gery Chico

Formerly served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, president of Chicago Board of Education, president of Chicago Park District and board chairman of City Colleges of Chicago

The crux of Chico’s mental health platform lies in dismantling one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s most notable pet projects.

In December, Chico announced, if elected, he’d shut down the City Infrastructure Trust, an Emanuel-era initiative to attract private investment in city projects. It’s widely agreed to have underperformed. Chico would put that money—an estimated annual $1.6 million in taxpayer dollars—towards services for mental illness.

2. Bill Daley

Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Chief of Staff to former President Barack Obama and son of former Mayor Richard M. Daley

Daley calls the decision to close clinics’ doors a “devastating blow to the Chicagoans who depended on them.” He casts some blame on the Illinois government for consistently spending less on mental health programs than other states.

With pronounced fundraising expertise, Daley plans to increase state and city partnership on investment in mental health. He’ll also create the Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention and Reduction, tasked with deploying tactics like counseling and life-coaching to at-risk young people and former inmates re-entering society.

“We must do better by these communities and pull together the requisite resources to bring services to our neighborhoods that need the most,” Daley said when asked about the challenges facing minority areas.

3. Amara Enyia

Community organizer and director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce

Enyia found a powerful partner on her mental health agenda in Chance the Rapper, a Chicago hip-hop musician turned activist who gave $1 million to mental health community programs last year.

A main objective for her as mayor would be to build a bridge between the police and public health departments, she said. To do so, she’s proposed establishing an emergency protocol that “diverts disabled citizens from criminal justice consequences to public health assistance, when appropriate.”

Beyond reopening closed clinics and building more, Enyia stresses education reform, demanding government equip every public school with the sufficient nurses and counselors to help students process their neighborhood trauma.

“Chicago isn’t broke,” she said. “This is a matter of prioritization.”

Protesters in 2014 were unsuccessful in their fight to keep North River Mental Health Center in North Park open. (/Flickr)

4. Bob Fioretti

Former 2nd Ward Alderman

While serving as alderman to the 2nd ward, Fioretti publicly voiced concern about the 2012 budget that would shudder the clinics. However, when the time came to vote, he rubber-stamped the resolution.

As a candidate, however, Fioretti plays the other side. H’s called for freezing the city’s expansive TIF program, a disputed property tax policy meant to encourage development that critics say has drained blighted neighborhoods of funds for social services. According to his website, Fioretti would halt TIF, evaluate where the money’s being used and send unused existing funds towards projects like re-opening mental health clinics.

5. La Shawn Ford

State representative and former CPS schoolteacher

Growing up in Chicago’s most infamous public housing project Cabrini Green, Ford witnessed firsthand the destruction that untreated trauma, addiction or other mental illness brings.

The schoolteacher turned state senator believes safer communities require expanded mental health services, according to his website. On the state level, he’s advocated aggressively for restorative justice programs, endorsed a West side ballot referendum to increase property tax to fund community-run mental health clinics and spearheaded state-level efforts to integrate mental health care and Medicaid.

6. Jerry Joyce

Lawyer and son of longtime 19th ward alderman and state senator, Jeremiah Joyce

During a mayoral roundtable with the Chicago Tribune editorial board earlier this month, Joyce diverged from his fellow candidates on how to swiftly abate Chicago’s crime problem. In the short run, he said, he’d hire more cops to avoid overworking detectives rather than fortifying social services.

The crime attorney also said he would work to strengthen neighborhoods in the long run, but his website’s suspiciously quiet on how.

7. John Kozlar

Lawyer with two aldermanic race losses under his belt

Despite running on an unabashedly anti-establishment platform with a progressive tilt, Kozlar’s website includes no direct mention of mental health, and he’s been tight-lipped on the issue in Chicagoland media.

Rallies after Decynthia Clements, a 34-year-old black woman, was shot and killed by an Elgin police officer in March 2018. The investigation is pending, but witnesses say Clements was experiencing a mental health episode when she was shot.(/Flickr)

8. Lori Lightfoot

Former president of Chicago Police Board and co-founder of Chicago Police Accountability Task Force

Lightfoot’s plans to combat the crisis closely intertwine with her ideas for improving public schools and addressing crime.

If elected, the former President of the Police Board would create a Mayor’s Office of Public Safety, charged with, among other things, leading a committee devoted to rebuilding community-based public and private mental health facilities, de-stigmatizing mental illness and supporting those who closely experience violence.

Lightfoot also proposes staffing public schools with experts trained in trauma-informed care and youth mental health.

9. Garry McCarthy

Former Superintendent of Chicago Police Department 

Many contend the embattled former Chicago Police Superintendent, who oversaw the department when Laquan McDonald was killed and was subsequently fired, entered the race simply to unseat his onetime boss Emanuel.

However, once Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, McCarthy’s fiery focus shifted, his sights set on undoing Emanuel’s legacy.

That includes opposing the construction of the $95 million new police academy, which McCarthy called a “shiny object” for “political purposes, not functional purposes,” in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last summer. In that same interview, he said he’d reallocate some of those funds towards putting mental health centers back into the communities that need them, key, in his view, to long term crime reduction.

10. Susana Mendoza

Illinois comptroller and former Chicago city clerk

Like many of her competitors, Mendoza believes that solutions to Chicago’s rising rate of mental illness among minorities and the devastatingly high number of the sick who end up incarcerated lie at the intersection of law enforcement, violence reduction and social services.

Following the footsteps of major metropolitan areas like Houston, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, one of Mendoza’s hallmark initiatives is a co-responder program in which mental health specialists respond alongside police officers to designated incident calls. As described on her website, upon arrival, the two would work together to link needy individuals to treatment services rather than to the criminal justice system, where applicable.

11. Toni Preckwinkle

President of Cook County Board and five-term 4th ward alderman

The five-term alderman who now serves as Cook County Board President believes that providing mental health care is a crucial step in addressing Chicago’s gun violence pandemic.

“People who don’t have access to mental health services end up in the county hospital, in the emergency room or in jail because they acted out,” Preckwinkle said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Although specifics to Preckwinkle’s plans are lacking, she was one of five mayoral-hopefuls who pledged to reinvest at least $25 million into expanding mental health services, prioritizing care resources and re-opening clinics at a forum earlier this month.

When City Council voted on closing clinics in 2012, protesters showed up at City Hall to voice their opposition.(/Flickr)

12. Neal Sáles-Griffin

Tech entrepreneur, CEO of Code Now and lecturer at Northwestern University and University of Chicago

The bright-eyed South Side local enters the race as the only true outsider. He’s never served in public office; instead making his name in tech entrepreneurship.

He has deep ties to the nonprofit and advocacy communities and remains closely connected to his roots on the South Side, which informs his viewpoint on the collision of mental health and violence prevention.

In addition to exploring re-opening mental health clinics and bulking up staff resources at existing providers, Sáles-Griffin wants to ramp up services available over the phone or online, according to his website. He also believes that normalizing mental health support is crucial, particularly in those communities most impacted by violence.

13. Paul Vallas

Former CEO of Chicago Public Schools followed by superintendent roles in Philadelphia and New Orleans school districts

Vallas wants to go big, constructing a community-owned, city-funded clinic in every police district—totaling 22—that provides treatment for illness, support for neighborhood-specific needs like affordable housing, personal finances or nutrition and works in tandem with law enforcement on training and crisis intervention.

Sound expensive?

“I’ve suggested that any revenue from the legalization of cannabis is allocated to the centers,” he said. “I also support considering a citywide referendum to put before tax payers a .25% property tax special levy to be used exclusively for [this].”

Additionally, the former CEO of CPS believes that mental health treatment needs to begin at a very young age, so he’d institutionalize these services in high schools and elementary schools.

14. Willie Wilson

Founder and CEO of Omar Medical Supplies

During a WLS radio interview last year, Wilson attacked Emanuel’s decision to close mental health clinics and introduced race into the debate, saying the mayor has a “mental health problem” of his own.

“If I closed 48 schools and were mayor today in a white community, what do you think would happen?” Wilson said.

Citing private conversations with police or fire responders, Wilson asserted in a Chicago Sun-Times questionnaire that more than half of emergency calls involve mental health issues. The first step to addressing crime, then, is to keep vulnerable citizens from turning to medication and instead allow them to turn for help. Like the other candidates in the field, Wilson wants reopen community health clinics and provide support for distressed communities more directly.

Photo at top: The outcry over the number of people incarcerated with mental illness has become a focal point of this year’s mayoral race.(/Flickr)

Chicago mental health task force will address voids in public services

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

A City Council committee took the first step Wednesday to address the gaping holes in mental health services for residents in minority neighborhoods.

Calling the 2012 closing of six public mental health clinics a mistake, the City Council Health and Environmental Protection Committee voted to create the Public Mental Health Clinic Service Expansion Task Force to explore the voids left ever since and make recommendations to the committee.

Since the closings, hospitalizations for behavioral mood disorders are on the rise, according to Healthy Chicago 2.0, a report commissioned by the Chicago Department of Public Health in 2016. Continue reading