The living room of Akeeshea Daniels’ home is filled with cardboard boxes stuffed with clothing.
She packed up months ago after East Chicago, Indiana, officials told residents at the West Calumet Housing Complex they had to move out because of high lead-levels in the soil.
“I’ve actually been packed since Sept. 2,” Daniels said. “So me and my children basically keep enough clothes to make it through the week out the boxes, and that’s what I’ve been continuing to wash.”
The 346-unit complex, which opened in the early-1970s, was built on land that had been used by a lead smelting company for decades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has known about lead contamination on the site for years, but said it could clean up the property without an evacuation.
Last year, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said he learned lead levels were so high in some parts of the complex that he ordered an evacuation anyway.
The residents have until March 31 to move out. Those remaining said they are concerned about their health, but finding a new home has been difficult. Some said they are still at West Calumet because they haven’t found an affordable alternative nearby. Others said there are limited options that can accommodate relatives with special needs.
“I think I cried when I read the (evacuation) letter because I didn’t understand why we were just being forced out,” Daniels said.
Daniels and her two children are part of a group of about 100 residents who remain at the public housing complex, which once had more than 1,200 people.
Daniels said she has lived in her one-story home for more than 10 years. The 40-year-old mother of two teenage boys said she has rheumatoid arthritis and receives disability payments. She said it’s been tough to find a new home, even with help from the city’s housing authority and the housing vouchers she received from the federal government.
“A lot of landlords don’t accept Section 8 vouchers. And, I think a lot of my problems stem from me having sons. They really don’t want to rent to people with teenagers,” Daniels said. “I would like to stay close to here. I’ve been in Hammond, Schererville, Merrillville, Hobart, Portage looking for places to live. I’ve been almost everywhere except Valparaiso and Crown Point.”
While Daniels wants to stay in Northwest Indiana, she said she wishes she had moved out of West Calumet a long time ago.
“This whole experience has really, really been devastating,” she said. “I didn’t plan on staying out here forever, but also not having anywhere to go and living out of boxes since September really has been a trying time for me and my kids.”
Some nearby homeowners dealing with chemical contamination said the tenants in the housing project are lucky because they get to move away.
But Daniels doesn’t feel that way.
“No matter how much amount of money they give me to move to somewhere else, I’m always going to be worrying if where I’m moving to has lead,” Daniels said. “I’ll never be comfortable no matter where I move.”
Across the street, 38-year-old Dalese Walker lives in a two-story home with her two daughters, a large dog and her boyfriend.
She said finding a new place to live is tough because she was laid off in October and doesn’t have much money.
“I haven’t been able to find work yet,” she said.
Walker said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will help with moving expenses, but when she finds a new place she will have to buy all new appliances. The ones in her in apartment have to stay.
“They are basically telling us we can’t take these (appliances),” Walker said. “Mine were brand new when I moved in here. I have to go to the graveyard to pick out a used stove and refrigerator. I just feel there’s a lot of things that are not really fair to us as tenants.”
Walker said she moved to West Calumet less than two years ago and wonders why, if the city and the U.S. EPA have known about the lead for decades, she is being forced out now.
“I don’t know why all of a sudden now it’s like rush, rush, rush, you’ve got to get out, because it’s been known,” Walker said. “It’s been known.”
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @MikePuenteNews.