Protestors hunger strike to draw attention to problems in poor neighborhoods

By Mark Minton

From sundown to sundown on Sept. 2–3, 13 people fasted to call attention to injustices suffered by poorer communities in the economic recession.

The Affordable Power Campaign and members of other Chicago grassroots organizations participated in a 24-hour hunger strike to draw attention to exorbitant utility rates, police brutality and a long string of murders in Chicago this year.

At the end of the fasting period on Sept. 4, the activists staged a memorial protest in front of City Hall to commemorate the 400 Chicagoans slain this year. Their names were read aloud to draw attention to the plight of the city’s poorest communities.

“It’s like genocide is taking place in some of our communities and many, many people seem indifferent to it,” said Anne Goodwyn, who teaches English as a second language in the Back of the Yards community. “Some of the comments that come from politicians and others are really heartbreaking. It’s as if these people don’t count.”

The memorial display downtown was decorated with signs that read “Stop the Stink,” alluding to more than 100,000 school children who can’t take a hot bath because their families are unable to afford basic utilities.

“We’ve been putting out leaflets saying ‘Why children stink’ for 15 years to bring attention to the way the laws are set up to [oppress] the people with the least choices or the lowest income,” said Curly Cohen, a volunteer for the Affordable Power Campaign.

Federal initiatives like the Low Program provides services for qualifying families whose household income does not exceed one-and-a-half times the poverty level or 60 percent of the state median income.

LIHEAP distributes funds annually as a block grant, which in 2010 amounted to $1.5 billion in addition to $490 million in emergency contingency funds.  Congress utilized a formula for distributing LIHEAP funds to states based on each state’s weather and low-

income population.

Supplemental funds from organizations dedicated to lowering utility expenses in low-income areas have been effective but do not solve the problem, according to Bob Vondrasek, the executive director of the South Austin Coalition Community Council, an organization

that distributes LIHEAP funds to qualifying residents.

“On the West Side of Chicago, we generally find ways to get people back on [as far as gas and electricity], but it would help if we had places where people could go [alternatively], but those don’t exist,” Vondrasek said.

Community organizations providing assistance remain packed on a daily basis, according to Vondrasek, but the problem is most severe for the elderly who may not have the means to seek help.

“For seniors and poor people trying to manage, it’s not easy,” Vondrasek said. “Instead of waiting for people to call in and say, ‘This senior is frying in his apartment and needs to be taken out of the building,’ it would be better to focus on having utility companies work with the city Health Department and come up with individual and long-term solutions for people that are

extremely poor.”

Jenina Ortiz, a mother who joined the strike with her 15-year-old son, said local law enforcement also diminishes quality of life in low-income areas.

“Just as police like to watch the people, I think the police need to be monitored as well,” Ortiz said. “I have a police scanner in my area, and it’s absurd how they let call after call pass by without even responding while shots are

being fired.”

Ortiz said poverty level and crime rates may be related.

“[Unaffordable utilities] are a stress on families, but what I think is fueling [problems in low-income neighborhoods] is many different things, not simply economic stresses,” Ortiz said. “The city should develop a code of conduct with police that holds them accountable for what they do. Right now, if there is a complaint against the police, there is a rate of about 8 percent of those complaints sustained.”

Mayor’s Office spokesman Tom Alexander declined to comment.

“You can’t deny people basic human needs,” Cohen said. “Utilities are basic human needs. While we have a good law that says people can pay based on their income, we need a law that deals with the problem of so many households being shut off.”