One Year Later, CHA Program a Work in Progress

A year after its launch, city officials are still struggling to define and implement an ambitious program to help public housing tenants get jobs and social services.

More than 1,200 residents were placed in jobs by Aug. 31, but many were in low-paying, high-turnover industries, The Chicago Reporter has found. City officials don’t know how many remain employed.

As thousands of residents are dispersed by the Chicago Housing Authority’s high-rise demolition and reconstruction plan, officials say helping those families will get harder in the coming year and require that they continually shift tactics to keep track of residents.

Independent evaluations are difficult, because officials in the Chicago Department of Human Services, which administers the program for the CHA, have tried to control access to the private agencies that run day-to-day operations.

And information given publicly about the program, known as the Service Connector, is sometimes not clear. For example, CHA Chief Executive Officer Terry Peterson wrote an Aug. 19 letter to the Chicago Sun-Times claiming that, in the past year, “our Service Connectors Program has helped more than 2,500 families get jobs.” According to data from Human Services, the number is roughly half that.

The Service Connector provides residents few direct services such as on-site job training or child care, but instead gives referrals to agencies outside public housing. It has been controversial from the start.

In an April story, the Reporter quoted independent experts and staff of the private agencies charging that the program is underfunded and understaffed. According to a September draft of the CHA’s 2003 plan, the authority will increase the Service Connector’s budget by 17 percent, to $7 million.

For that story, under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the Reporter requested copies of weekly reports the agencies submit to Human Services. The department, backed by the city’s lawyers, initially refused to provide them, in violation of the act. The city eventually relented, and in May began providing most of the reports from January to May.

But in response to further inquiries by the Reporter, Human Services officials have told the agencies that they are not allowed to speak to the press without permission. Some agency officials spoke with the Reporter anyway, or did so before the city told them to cut off contact.

Human Services officials said they would only allow Service Connector staff to be interviewed as a group, which would include department officials.

“What we don’t want is [the Reporter] to go out there to get opinions about stuff that we know about and we are trying to fix,” said Ray Vazquez, commissioner of the Human Services Department. “I will say that [the program] is still new, we’re all working on this together, and we just need some time, so that as issues do arise, we don’t go through the media and say this isn’t working.”

“Not that I agree with them,” said Benjamin J. Kendrick, executive director of the Marcy-Newberry Association, which works with residents at eight West Side developments, but “I’ve got 50 people working for me, so I’ve got to go along.”

All of the agencies’ contracts are up for renewal in December.

No Lifeline

Isabel Blanco, director of community development and support for the CHA, told the Reporter that Peterson’s job tally in the Sun-Times included those counted by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, which has run several jobs programs for CHA residents since 1999. Most of those residents were placed prior to September 2001. From that month through August 31, 1,228 residents got jobs directly through the Service Connector, she said.

Agency officials feel they’ve made progress so far, but worry about their clients’ low pay, and they’re not sure how many are still working.

“We’re taking people that have never worked before, that have been on welfare, that have a lot of obstacles to employment–”trying to work with them and placing them in entry-level jobs,” said Carl Murrain, president and chief executive officer of the Abraham Lincoln Centre, a South Side agency that runs the program at two developments. He spoke with the Reporter once before hearing the city prohibited individual contact.

Most of the jobs are in the service industry at places like fast food restaurants or grocery stores, and they pay around $7 an hour, according to agency officials.

“They’re not making enough money,” Murrain said, which can lead to “other issues that they can’t reconcile–”like babysitting issues, transportation issues, [and] health issues.” Others “don’t make good decisions,” including clashing with supervisors, and get fired, Murrain added. “We’re lucky if they stay in the job for about 60 days.”

Anyone who loses a job and gets another is double-counted by the city. So far, there have been only 52 repeats, according to Vazquez.

The city does not know how many of the 1,228 who got jobs are still working, Blanco said. “Our guideline is the [CHA’s] transformation plan,” she said. The 2000 plan asks the Service Connector to make 3,000 job placements by 2005, and does not set goals on job retention.

In the coming year, the city will push agencies to improve job retention, she added.

But some believe the challenges remain daunting. “Are we placing people in a head of household position with a livable wage? Are we placing people in jobs that are a lifeline?” Murrain asked. “The answer to most of these questions is no.”

Tick Tock

These issues will have lasting consequences for CHA residents, and the clock is ticking. Developers and city officials have said the mixed-income communities that will replace today’s developments will have “site-specific criteria” that could block unemployed residents from returning.

Murrain said his agency needed more “training money to help people we’ve placed in jobs understand how they move up in the organization, and give them additional skills to do that.”

Leigh Diffay, the vice president of Employment & Employer Services, another Service Connector agency, said the company needs more case managers, who typically help residents with severe problems like extreme poverty or substance abuse.

In April, the Reporter cited experts who said a 35-to-1 client-to-case manager ratio is reasonable. But at the agency’s two North Side developments, Cabrini-Green and the Lathrop Homes, “case managers have caseloads that are in excess of 100 to 125 people,” Diffay said.

On May 29, Diffay’s company took over responsibility for five additional developments on the South Side, after the first connector, William Moorehead and Associates, was fired. Several of the developments, including the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, will have a number of buildings closed this year, with hundreds of families scattered to other buildings, developments or private, off-site housing.

Keeping track of the dispersed families “further depletes the limited resources we have available,” Diffay said.

City officials said they have not decided how to use next year’s increased budget. With so many CHA residents on the move, said Ngoan Le, deputy commissioner of Human Services, “the service designs will need to be tailored to the changing environment.”

Good Recipe

Moorehead’s termination was the year’s biggest jolt.

In its April story, the Reporter found that many residents of the Robert Taylor Homes had never heard of the Service Connector.

From January to May, the company reported finding 32 residents full-time employment, city documents show. Nine were from the Taylor Homes. Moorehead’s developments were home to 7,264 people, according to 2001 statistics. Over the same period, Employment & Employer Services found 101 jobs for its 6,543 clients on the North Side, and Lincoln Centre found 81 jobs for 3,963 people.

Beauty Turner, a public housing resident who has interviewed hundreds of her neighbors in Robert Taylor for a Columbia University research project, said, “The only service connector seemed to be me.”

City officials said Moorehead had seemed like a good fit for the Service Connector program.

William Moorehead, the company’s president, “has a great reputation in Chicago,” said Vazquez, the Human Services commissioner. “All I’d like for you to know is that we had to make a change, and we made it.”

“It looked like it was a good recipe for success,” Blanco said. She cited Moorehead’s experience as property manager at Robert Taylor, and a history of providing welfare-to-work contracts. But the real work is “putting these pieces together and the sorting of folks to enter a pipeline” toward whatever services they need, whether it’s job training, employment or child care, Blanco said. “It takes a fairly sophisticated approach.”

Moorehead did not return phone calls.

Without an effective connecting agency, hundreds of families were handicapped in searching for jobs, child care and job training, and in getting up-to-date on rent and utilities.

Kathryn Greenberg, managing director of communications for the CHA, said the authority had planned to close eight buildings by Sept. 30 that were home to roughly 550 families. Six of the buildings were Moorehead’s responsibility–”three at Robert Taylor, two at Stateway Gardens and another at Washington Park on the South Side.

In the second week of September, 250 families were still living in the buildings, according to Greenberg. She said the CHA was readying “slightly rehabbed apartments” for them at other developments.

The CHA provides relocation counseling to help these families move, Blanco said, but “clearly we wanted the service connector–”and our investment in the service connector–”to yield more support.”

Blocked Access

The city has repeatedly blocked access to Service Connector information.

And the Reporter received several explanations for why connector agencies couldn’t participate in independent interviews.

B.J. Walker, the city’s chief of human infrastructure, said she did not “know of any gag orders. [The agencies] were asking for help [with press calls] and DHS offered to provide them assistance.”

Not so, say agency directors. “They have asked for us to clear media contacts with them first,” said Ted Barillas, vice president of Community Information and Referral for the Community Resource Network, which helps residents in scattered-site housing.

In 2001, the agencies were required to report a detailed breakdown of the number of referrals and a narrative that described the week’s events. Since Jan. 1, the narratives were dropped as a requirement of the weekly reports, but some of the agencies continued to submit them.

From January to May, Ray Bentley, the supervisor for Marcy-Newberry’s operation, continually wrote about a plague of computer and phone problems. “Sites report that computer operations are inconsistent at many West Side locations,” he wrote May 10. “At ABLA, the network continues to shut down, processing time is extremely slow, and we have been informed by a technician that the network equipment was improperly installed.”

Other agencies have struggled with similar problems, according to reports and interviews.

“All of [our] sites continue to experience computer problems,” Diffay said, leaving a “tremendous backlog of information that needs to be entered.”

“We’ve had a long stretch of time without phones and computers,” Murrain said. But his agency’s long years of working within the CHA has taught it to expect infrastructure problems, he added, and staff members have to adapt.

For residents’ convenience, connectors are located at the developments, and “those buildings were never built for any type of computer system or anything like that,” said Mattie Hunter, director of Human Services’ Service Connector program.

Both CHA and city officials said they meet monthly with their agencies to work out glitches. Le said she hopes people “appreciate the difficulty we have to face collectively to put this program in place. We don’t deny the problem exists–”it’s just that the problem is taking much longer to solve than we would like.”

Contributing: Kristen Dorsey and Maria Erdmann

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