INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dozens of families remained at a lead-contaminated public housing complex in northwest Indiana, despite a Friday target date to move them out so the city can tear down the buildings.
More than 270 families have left East Chicago's West Calumet Housing Complex, and officials hope to have the remaining 50 or so families out next week. But the delay points to several problems with the evacuation effort, such as limited rental options in the formerly industrial area, landlords who won't accept government housing vouchers and some residents' resistance to being forced from the city.
Lifelong East Chicago resident Tara Adams said she has been seeking a new home for herself, her 19-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter since last summer and has had belongings packed up for months. The temporary housing she has been offered is about 25 miles away, in what she worries is a perilous neighborhood across the state line on Chicago's South Side.
"I for sure don't want to move my 19-year-old son into an area where there's a greater chance for him to get shot," Adams said. "I don't want to do that."
Officials last summer began clearing out the 45-year-old complex of three-story apartment buildings after detailed soil testing found some yards with lead levels more than 70 times the federal safety standard.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency soon warned parents to keep their children away from the dirt on the site occupied decades ago by a lead-products factory. Just to the south sat the sprawling U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, or USS Lead, which salvaged lead from old car batteries and scrap metal before it closed in 1985.
The complex was home to more than 1,000 people, including about 700 children. Tests by the Indiana Department of Health found high lead levels in blood samples of some children. Even at low levels, exposure can cause nervous system damage and lowered IQs, according to experts.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reached an agreement in November with advocates representing the residents that gave families a break on rent and until the end of March to find new homes.
Of those families remaining at the complex, homes in East Chicago have been lined up about 30 and fewer than 10 families face possible relocations to Chicago, according to HUD officials. Those unhappy with their relocation options have until Monday to file grievances with the local housing authority.
James Cunningham, HUD's deputy regional administrator in Chicago, said a limited number available rentals in East Chicago complicated efforts to find new homes nearby for all the West Calumet residents.
"The absorption, I think, has gone pretty well given the large number — we had to relocate 332 families," Cunningham said.
Final decisions on the relocations rest with city officials, who didn't talk with a couple dozen protesters at City Hall last week calling for an extension of the relocation deadline.
Mayor Anthony Copeland's office and city housing authority officials didn't return telephone messages this week seeking comment.
An East Chicago city official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have the authority to speak, told WBEZ that families moving to Chicago will be provided free transportation to their school in East Chicago.
“This will be done until the end of the year so they don’t miss any school,” the official said. “Some people will go from having a five minute drive to school to a 20 or 30 minute drive to school. We hate that there’s any disruption but it’s the least amount of disruption the East Chicago Housing Authority can possibly arrange for those families.”
Copeland said in a statement last week to local news media he would never advocate moving residents involuntarily "unless we faced an issue of public safety" and that waiting wasn't an option because of the environmental hazards.
The plans to move some families across the state line into Illinois could cost people jobs and state Medicaid coverage and force children to change schools late in the school year, said Emily Coffey, an attorney for Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law who's working with residents.
Coffey said the relocation agreement from November was meant to maximize the choice residents had in finding new homes and that local housing officials were making "panicked moves" after letting families live at the polluted complex for decades.
"If there are emergency relocations ... it's going to be pretty unlikely that those families are going to be able to move to healthy communities where they'll have access to good education, good health care and good jobs," she said.
Coffey didn’t say how much more time she thinks residents should have to move.
“I’m hesitant to put hard deadlines on anything because I don’t think that is a helpful motivating factor for any of the residents. The residents know that they need to leave and want to leave and be somewhere that his healthier for their families,” Coffey said. “But when you put really harsh deadlines on somebody that is not movable, it causes people to panic and to make rush moves to communities that may not be the best place for them and is not really the place that they are really choosing to go.”
Adams still has a sign from the EPA warning against playing in the dirt in the front yard what's been her family's home for nine years. She says it's "by the grace of God" that blood tests haven't found high lead levels among her three children or grandson.
But she's said she's been looking constantly for a new home in hopes of keeping her daughter in a school she likes and a community her family knows.
"What's very frustrating is people making it seem like we're not looking, or we're not searching, or we're just doing nothing," Adams said. "I've never wanted to be in this situation so since day one I've been trying to find somewhere to live."
WBEZ's Northwest Indiana reporter Michael Puente contributed to this story. Follow him on Twitter at @MikePuenteNews.