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Crime puts Boystown service agency under spotlight

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Crime puts Boystown service agency under spotlight

At a packed CAPS meeting in Lakeview, some blamed the Center on Halsted for recent crimes.

WBEZ/Odette Yousef

It’s been just over one week since a video depicting a brutal street attack in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood went viral. That violent incident was just one of several so far this summer in the popular gay entertainment district known as Boystown. But it’s taken the lid off an emotional debate that community’s having about who’s responsible for crime. Some are pointing fingers at Boystown’s Center on Halsted — a social service agency — and particularly its young clientele.

The attack happened just before midnight two Sundays ago. It was a regular weekend night, with people teeming outside Boystown’s clubs and bars on Halsted Street. The video captures a crowd punching, beating, and jeering at a young African American man. He was also stabbed multiple times.

Late last week, Chicago Police announced an arrest. A man from Hammond, Indiana. Others are likely to follow. But before anything was known about the attackers, rumblings began, mostly online, that gay youth from other neighborhoods were committing these crimes. Those rumors got a full airing last week during an explosive community policing, or CAPS, meeting.

SPEAKER: I was one of those kids. I grew up in the neighborhood. So don’t attack the kids. You are to blame.

Almost six hundred people packed that meeting hall in Lakeview.

SPEAKER: When I grew up here, gays were getting beat up on, my friends were beating up gay people. Now you own the community, and what do you do? You turn it on kids that are troubled because their parents can’t afford to feed them so they throw them out on the street. Not on your doorstep? Not on your doorstep?

AUDIENCE: (Booing)

SPEAKER: You guys better wake up. Wake up now. Wake up.

Several gay youths also spoke.

Many said their sexual orientations got them kicked out of their own families and communities.

So they went to Boystown for acceptance… but even there, they felt despised.

SPEAKER: I have been looked at as an individual who is stared down upon because I am dirty, because have no place to sleep, because there are no shelters. Because there are no shelters in Lakeview ...

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Not on my doorstep, buddy…

Catch that? One audience member said, “Not on my doorstep, buddy.” And that’s been the complaint from some… that when the Center on Halsted closes at 10pm, its youth go out onto the streets to loiter, squat, roam, and commit crimes.

When it opened four years ago, the Center was meant to be a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people of all ages. That’s worked. The Center says it’s at capacity — 1000 people go there every day for everything from meals, job skills training, gym activities, or to use the Internet.

But some Boystown residents wonder if the youth program is doing more harm than good.

ambi: street noise

CUNNINGHAM: Want to go this way or this way?

GREG: Let’s go that way.

A team of six or so Boystown residents were out on Halsted after midnight this last Saturday. It’s an ad-hoc group of men… they do this every week… sweep the side streets and alleys to call in crimes and suspicious activities they see to police.

SCOTT WHITE: Yeah, they’re literally just west of Halsted…

They report anything from assaults to relatively minor things… like this group smoking weed on the sidewalk.

SCOTT WHITE: Yeah, anywhere from ten to fifteen.

Greg Rohner is one of these self-appointed vigilantes. He’s lived around Halsted since 1998 – before the Center was built. He says he started doing the walks a couple of years ago after he stopped a sexual assault in progress outside his apartment.

YOUSEF: Do you have any reason to believe that some of the crime is attributed to people affiliated with the Center?

ROHNER: I hate to say it but… yeah. I’ve been very involved in CAPS, and I’ve been involved in CAPS all year long. And I was in a CAPS meeting a couple of months ago, and we had somebody that was familiar with people that get services from the Center, and they had a list of the recent arrests, and one person on there was somebody that had been receiving services at the Center.

YOUSEF: Do you think it would be better for them to simply not offer services so that they don’t basically eject all these people onto the streets at 10pm?

ROHNER: I would hate to see that happen. But on the other hand, the problem isn’t getting any better. And when you’ve got people that have no place to go when the Center closes, they’re on the street. And we can’t all take them in. We get them from everywhere, and we do our best here to give them services because their neighborhoods don’t give them services. There’s only so much that we can do, you know?

I asked another one of these crime watchers, John Cunningham, about his take on the Center.

Cunningham says he also doesn’t think closing it, or its youth program, would accomplish anything.

CUNNINGHAM: While that might have been the initial cause of what started things escalating things many years back, I don’t think that that is the current reason. Word got out that it’s a fun, safe neighborhood, and then things escalated, and then unfortunately, so did the criminal element, too.

In other words, the genie’s out of the bottle.

Young gay people across the city know about Boystown now, and they’ll keep coming, regardless of whether the Center on Halsted is there. Still, some people affiliated with Center say, every time crime flares up, they’ll still have to be on the defensive. Modesto Tico Valle is CEO of the Center.

VALLE: We are part of the solution. We are not the problem.

Chicago police have affirmed that the Center was not the problem in the videotaped assault. They say don’t believe the man they arrested or other suspects were affiliated with the Center. Valle agrees with people who say there should be a homeless shelter, or something that takes in youth after hours, but he says it would be a travesty to suspend the Center’s youth programming until it there are 24-hour services, as some Boystown residents have demanded.

VALLE: These young people come here for mental health, for job readiness, for case management. We in some cases are t heir lifeline. Take that away from them, and we have ourselves a larger problem.

Valle says the Center’s critics are just a small, but vocal group and that, as a whole, the Boystown community supports the center and its youth. Yes, the recent meeting aired some ugly comments and accusations. But many more members come forward to offer kind words, donations, and time.

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