Maria Perez lives in a one-bedroom Chicago Housing Authority senior building on the city’s North Side. Perez says she went three months without hot water in her bathroom because of a language barrier to speak with building management. Perez speaks Spanish, and her English is limited.
Such language access issues and the hardships resulting from them — like those Perez experienced — are common in CHA senior buildings. That’s according to “Falling Flat: The Chicago Housing Authority’s Inadequate Implementation of Their Language Access Plan,” a new report released Thursday by the Jane Addams Senior Caucus (JASC), a multiracial grassroots group. Perez is a part of the group.
“This report finds that both current and prospective residents faced numerous barriers in obtaining assistance in their native language. Some residents felt that the consequences of their limited English was mitigated due to the supportive community in their building that could provide occasional interpretation,” the report said.
“However, many seniors trying to navigate the application from the outside were particularly vulnerable and did not have an internal community to support the process. Ultimately, their experiences — and any assistance they received — were contingent upon familial and community support, not a CHA process or structure. Residents, by and large, were not aware of nor did they have access to interpretation services.”
JASC members did something called participatory action research — where people most affected by an issue do the research, analyze and take action on it.
With help from the Loyola University Chicago Center for Urban Research and Learning and the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, 69 CHA seniors from seven language groups conducted surveys in senior buildings. The number one language spoken is Spanish, followed by Polish, Russian then Hindi/Urdu.
The CHA senior population tends to be more diverse than other public housing properties. Perez and other seniors want more bilingual staff, more training and a better language phone line.
“Language access is not happening,” Teresa Neumann, operations manager and senior researcher with Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning. “CHA has a plan, but it’s not being implemented.”
The federal government requires CHA to provide language assistance, which includes access to free oral interpretation and translation of vital written documents.
Emily Coffey is a housing attorney with Shriver. She put in a public records request to CHA to match data with the anecdotes from seniors.
“We found that … 37% of the documents that they say in their plan are being translated were not produced to us. So we don’t have evidence that, in fact, those documents have been translated,” Coffey said.
CHA officials dispute the report’s conclusions and say it’s too small of a sample. They say there are 4,500 limited-English speakers among their senior residents. Since fully implementing its language access plan in 2016, CHA said there’s been a jump in requests for translation services. Telephonic interpretations increased 789% from 152 in 2015 to 1,351 in 2018, officials said.
In a statement, CHA said: “Other than FOIA requests, neither the Caucus or its Language Access Coalition contacted CHA to discuss the report, the findings or concerns. Upon learning of the report last week, CHA reached out to the Caucus leadership to request a meeting. We look forward to that meeting, not only to discuss the Caucus’ concerns, but to listen to their ideas about how we can mutually support the needs of all CHA seniors.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hindi.