Reaching out

When Rev. Brenda Adele Collins Sheriff was 16-years old, she was peacefully walking with her family at Rainbow Beach at South Shore on a warm summer evening. When they returned to their car, they found the tires slashed. Sheriff recalls her father talking to police, who told them to go home since they “shouldn’t be over here.”

In 1961, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had already started a strong fight against segregation and made Rainbow Beach a battleground for racial equality. Sheriff now strives to make the NAACP as strong as it was when they were fighting de facto segregation in the 1960s.

Since 1909, the oldest grassroots-based civil rights organization in America has helped communities in many ways, from registering voters to fighting against discriminatory laws. Sheriff has been working to restore the NAACP`s power and public recognition that seems to have been lost in the past few decades.

“I noticed that most of the active members were seniors,” Sheriff said, “and I did not want [the NAACP] to die on my watch.”

Sheriff, 71, stated that her goal is to attract younger members to be active in this group. She has been a card-carrying member of the NAACP since her teenage years, but the 2006 death of her cousin Elva Garner – an active member of the association – pushed her to become more involved with the organization to maintain her family’s legacy.

Born in the segregated town of Cowan, Tennessee, Sheriff moved to Chicago in 1957 and has dealt with racial issues her entire life.

“The situation that the United States is in right now reinforced what I already knew: racism is not dead,” she said.

Recently, Sheriff introduced Andra Medea, a nationally recognized conflict expert, to the NAACP and started an initiative to teach youth how to de-escalate conflict and recognize potentially dangerous situations before they get out of hand.

One concept Medea discusses is “flooding” – the physical and emotional responses that we suffer when we feel out of control –  and how to differentiate healthy conflicts from unhealthy, dysfunctional, or predatory ones.

“[The goal is] teaching professionals – whether it’s a teacher, whether it’s a policeman – to read the signs when something is about to get out of hand and how to better handle that situation…so that the outcome is not violent,” Sheriff explained.

Medea has started a Crowdrise campaign to fund community projects that will teach de-escalation methods to youth at NAACP`s Southside Branch.

“Our target group is young kids in the neighborhoods,” Medea said. “[De-escalation] is a skillset that can change lives.”

These skills include teaching today’s youth how to properly identify what types of conflict they observe by noticing physical and verbal cues. This will enable them to distract themselves from the growing conflict in order to activate different parts of the brain, which will appease threat signals and jump-start rational thought.

The NAACP has also been pushing to introduce obligatory de-escalation training for U.S. police departments in order to minimize police violence.

Sheriff believes the Chicago Police Department`s new superintendent Eddie Johnson “seems to be open to non-traditional methods of providing the protection and service that they are sworn to do.”

The NAACP is hoping that Johnson`s revitalization of the dormant Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) will show civilians and law enforcement professionals simple techniques that can change violent communities from within.

The NAACP has a history of changing not only the public’s view of the African American community, but also the behavior of the government towards it. In 1954, the organization won the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. Now Sheriff and Southside Branch`s president Rose Joshua strive to keep the legal fight going with the help of many influential Chicago politicians, artists, and pro-bono lawyers.

Sheriff also said that one of the main struggles of the organization today is its lack of celebrity personalities, which diminishes attention from the media and lowers public endorsements. The last time the NAACP had a press conference to protest an issue, “the aldermen were the ones in the front and the NAACP was in the back.” The NAACP constantly takes the sidelines of news stories as a present organization rather than an active one.

Sheriff and Joshua have reached out to celebrities who want to improve Chicago neighborhoods to help with events, attract youth, and garner media attention. One such celebrity is Matt Forte, drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2008 and now the running back for the New York Jets. He participated on NAACP`s de-escalation event in November 2016.

Sheriff is dedicated to find new ways to make Chicago a safer place with the help of volunteers and NAACP members. “I want to have no regrets once I go,” she said. “I want to have helped everyone that I can.”

No vacancy?

For five months, Henry Castillo called the Preston Bradley Center home. The shelter in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood housed the homeless for 33 years. Then, in December, it was meant to close because of state budget cuts. Castillo, 47, didn’t have an alternative for the shelter.

“There`s a two-year waitlist for the Lincoln Park shelter,” Castillo said. “I wish we had more options.”

The scheduled shuttering of the 72-bed shelter is the latest example of a string of recent closings in Chicago.

In 2015, Chicago had 1,701 emergency shelter beds available, or 17 percent fewer beds than the 2,064 available in 2013, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Chicago also claimed 7,613 beds in permanent supportive housing in 2015, which is 10 percent lower than in 2014, when there were 8,460 beds, the coalition stated.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago closed two family shelters, St. Francis De Paula Interim Housing and Our Lady of Solace, in 2015 due to “uncertain governmental funding.” The organization worked to find nearly 100 beds to relocate its 1,726 residents, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Similarly, a homeless shelter in Lakeview which had 30 beds closed due to state budget cuts in 2010. In 2011, another Uptown shelter with 60 beds closed due to the same issue, according to ABC-7.

When there are fewer shelters and beds available, displaced homeless often end up on the streets or in poorer neighborhoods where they are exposed to violence, author and journalist for homeless issues Jamie Kalven explained.

“The outcomes of violence, homelessness and trauma have been huge,” Kalven said.

He attributes Chicago`s homeless problem to the destruction of public housing high rises beginning in the 1990s.

“It was forced relocation. People were forced out of their homes,” Kalven said.

He said the residents who were left to their own devices with intense poverty and no police protection never saw the improvements promised by the plan.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reported that in 2015 there was an estimated 125,848 homeless people in Chicago.

There are 50 homeless shelters in Chicago, according to the online Homeless Shelter Database. Of these shelters, six are located on the city’s North Side, a wealthier residential area.

Kalven said that the spike in violence in the city in the past few years is not solely due to the closing of homeless shelters, but he believes the two are related.

He explained that the issues that come with relocation are much deeper and more complicated than they appear. Personal relationships and the sense of belonging to a community are stripped away from the residents of the city`s shelters when they are forced to move.

“One of the consequences of this process of rapid demolition is that the new people don`t know the rules of the new neighborhoods,” he said.

The continuing gang issues that surround the city are related to the forced merging – through public housing and shelters – of groups that do not get along.

Justin Shuldiner, who has worked for the Los Angeles Housing Authority and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), told Kalven about the two main circumstances that differentiate Chicago public housing from other big cities:

“The first one was how poor the people were, and the other was that police had long ago withdrawn from public housing,” Kalven said.

This is on par with what Sunny Fischer, philanthropist and board chair of the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, sees in the city nowadays. Fischer grew up in a public housing development in New York City`s Bronx neighborhood.

“The development had great schools, a library, a good community… and it was safe,” Fischer said.

Public housing in Chicago has not yet evolved into a development, but is mostly a community with not many perks.

Castillo and his sister, who is living in a threshold (part of the homeless outreach program to help people with serious mental illnesses), both had jobs for years before becoming homeless. Castillo worked at the Norwegian American Hospital before suffering a knee injury and losing his job. He was forced to seek help from the Department of Housing Services.

“The DHS helped me find a shelter but there weren`t many shelters around [Uptown]. I used to live here so I wanted to remain in the area,” Castillo said.

Castillo also pointed out the fact that many shelters still have drug and alcohol problems. He recalled trying to apply to the Aragon shelter with his sister and giving up due to the people he saw outside.

“There were four guys sitting outside passing a beer and a joint,” Castillo said.

On the day it was supposed to close, a generous person donated enough money to keep the Preston Bradley shelter open through this winter. With the uncertainty of the shelter`s future, Castillo`s search for an adequate replacement is not over and will likely take him to other parts of the city.

“There are good shelters out there,” he said. “But we`re being pushed to the South Side.”