HUMBOLDT PARK — When “John,” a Chicago native, returned home from U.S. Army deployment in 2012, he had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life.
During his four-year stint in the Army, John experienced traumatic events as he traveled from war-torn Afghanistan to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. In Haiti, he transported dead bodies piled up in the street to the morgue. He had similar duties in Afghanistan, where he also lost two friends to a suicide bombing.
When John returned home to the Chicago area, he started drinking heavily and cut himself off from family and friends. He was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I woke up and drank and fell asleep drinking. It was pretty rough,” John said. Block Club is using an alias to protect his identity.
He couldn’t hold down a stable job or keep an apartment. He mostly stayed on friends’ and family members’ couches, all while battling mental health and substance abuse problems.
“I tried to work a couple jobs when I got out but I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I had bad anxiety. I had to force myself to leave the house because I was scared to leave the house.”
Things turned around in 2016 when John checked himself into the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. As he was being treated for substance abuse and PTSD, he heard about a new affordable housing building that was being built exclusively for low-income and homeless veterans in Humboldt Park.
The roughly 50-unit building coming to 1045 N. Sacramento Ave. seemed like the perfect fit for John. Not only did it offer permanent subsidized housing in a community of veterans, but it also promised an array of on-site medical, educational and employment services specifically geared toward veterans.
Filled with hope, John applied to live there and was accepted. In 2016, John became one of the first residents to move into the new building, called 65th Infantry Regiment “Borinqueneers” Veterans Housing.
John pictured a new life for himself in the veterans building in which he was healthy and living on his own, stable and secure. But that never happened.
Interviews with five residents and the former property manager paint a picture of a building so riddled with problems that it hurts the veterans it aims to help. And in a symbolic sign of the project’s failings, the complex is already starting to deteriorate, just a few years after it was built.
‘Nothing’s really changed’
At the veteran building’s grand opening in November 2016, Hipolito Roldan, president of the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, declared the building “a place of hope that will work on healing people whose lives have been destroyed by war.”
The developer received a $1.5 million loan from the city in taxpayer money to help pay for construction.
Hispanic Housing Development Corporation promised the four-story building, located off the neighborhood’s namesake park, would house nearly 50 low-income and homeless veterans. They’d pay reduced rents supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The building would also offer an array of regular on-site services — not just mental health treatment but educational programming and work-training workshops. The hospital next door, Norwegian American Hospital, would serve as the project partner and help provide those services.
The building was named after a military unit that has fought in every war since the Spanish-American War of 1898, the 65th Infantry Regiment known as the Borinqueneers, a Puerto Rican regiment of the Army. The name reflects the indigenous people’s name of the island — Borinquen.
At the grand opening, Roldan, who served in the Vietnam War, said he felt a responsibility “to do the best [he] could with what life [he] had left to live.”
“It’s our turn here to make life a little easier for those folks,” the developer said.
Irma Cornier, the building’s former property manager, was at the grand opening alongside Roldan, the Borinqueneers and local politicians.
Roldan hired Cornier in the summer of 2016, several weeks before the building opened. Cornier, the granddaughter of a Borinqueneer, has a deep understanding of the challenges facing Borinqueneers and other veterans. She founded the Chicago Borinqueneers and has years of experience doing volunteer work with Chicago veterans.
When she was hired as property manager, Cornier, like John, was filled with hope.
She scoured the city for people qualified to live in the building, which was difficult, given the strict background checks and the control Hispanic Housing Development Corporation insisted on having over the application process. The developer declined to comment on Cornier’s experience because she is a former employee.
“I was extremely excited because I was like, ‘Finally, I can help my veterans,'” Cornier said.
That feeling was short-lived.
Corner said the 65th Infantry building is not “a place of hope.” The developer isn’t offering the comprehensive on-site services it promised. Three years after the building opened, tenants don’t have basic amenities they were promised, like working computers. Many of the apartments have large cracks in the walls and some have mold.
And those are only a few of the issues tenants who spoke with Block Club raised. The tenants spoke under the condition of anonymity because they fear repercussions from management, including possibly becoming homeless again.
John, the U.S. Army veteran, spends most of his time in his room sleeping. He isn’t getting any of the on-site treatment he was promised and he’s uncomfortable spending time in the common area or bringing up issues with management because of the culture of distrust fostered by the developer and its property manager, he said.
“Only difference from when I first moved in the building is I actually have a place to stay,” John said.
“Other than that, I’m still drinking. I still have PTSD. Nothing’s really changed.”
‘Give us what we deserve’
Linda, another building tenant, said there’s mold in some of the apartments. Block Club is using an alias to protect her identity.
“I kept asking [my neighbors]: Why is that black spot there?” Linda said.
“It’s alarming because this is a brand new building. So what’s going on with the infrastructure and the foundation?”
In addition to the large cracks in the walls of many of the apartments and in the floors of the common area, there are also gaps in the windows and doors, according to interviews and photos. The latter makes it difficult to properly heat and cool the apartments. It sometimes takes weeks for maintenance workers to fix such issues, tenants said.
One tenant had a gap in his window that went unfixed for weeks in the winter.
“I told them it’s snowing in my bedroom. They thought I was joking,” the tenant said.
“It took me a while to get someone to come up here. When they came up and saw there was actually snow in my bedroom, they said, ‘Why didn’t tell you me?’ I said, ‘I did tell you, and you didn’t do it.'”
In the first three years, the pipes burst twice, tenants said. One of the incidents resulted in flooding in a few of the apartments, which destroyed residents’ belongings. Management held a meeting, but Linda said tenants weren’t allowed to ask questions.
“It kinda felt like we couldn’t voice our concerns. We tried to tell her that it’s too cold in the hallways. There were apartments that got damaged. Maybe that’s how some of the cracks happened,” Linda said.
Linda, a mother of two young boys, served in the U.S. Navy for five years. When she returned home from deployment to be with her husband, who is from Chicago, her marriage fell apart. She then started a new relationship that ended after a domestic violence incident, and subsequently took her two kids to live in a homeless shelter. Linda and her children lived there for about two months before they landed at the 65th Infantry building.
“They were saying, ‘We’re going to have TVs, computers, the whole nine. We’re going to have services specifically for you guys here in the building. You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s a one-stop shop,'” Linda said.
Today, the community room, designed to be a hub for on-site services, sits empty.
In a statement, Norwegian American Hospital said the hospital was never able to reach an agreement with the Jesse Brown VA and Hispanic Housing on a reimbursement plan for health care services in the building. In other words, the developer’s plan never materialized.
“Should the VA be willing to work with us to develop a reasonable payment structure, we would be happy to provide services to our veterans because we are fully committed to this patient population,” the statement reads.
Hispanic Housing has also yet to deliver on its promise of providing a computer lab for the residents. The developer recently brought in a few computers after years of requests, but has yet to install internet in the lab, making the computers useless.
The computer lab remained locked up as of this week and many of the residents are too poor to afford a computer of their own.
“It’s like come on, give us what we deserve,” Linda said.
“At times, they feel like we’re incompetent, that we don’t know any better. … They feel like these are veterans — they don’t care, they won’t know and they won’t look into it.”
John said the services were the “only reason” he moved into the building.
“If there [were] activities in the building that would keep me from drinking I’d come downstairs and do that, but no one’s ever coming down there. Everyone’s in their apartments,” John said.
‘The building hasn’t helped at all. Not at all. They haven’t lifted one finger’
Carl, another tenant, said his dissatisfaction goes deeper than disappointment. Block Club is using an alias to protect his identity.
“It’s not just disappointing. I feel like I’ve been lied to. A disappointment you can bounce back or grow from. It’s like they’re stealing. It’s so much we could’ve had — so much growth,” Carl said.
More than a year ago, an altercation between one of the tenants and the building’s property manager prompted Hispanic Housing to hire armed security guards for a few months, tenants said. The developer confirmed they hired armed guards.
Carl and other tenants said the guards were unnecessary and made some of the veterans feel unsafe.
“Hiring armed security guards around vets who are mentally unstable? They didn’t do it to protect the tenants, they did it to protect the workers here,” Carl said.
It’s just one example of Hispanic Housing’s poor managerial decisions that have fostered a culture of distrust in the building, Carl and other tenants said.
Most of the time, the current on-site property manager doesn’t leave her office, which means many of the issues with problem tenants go unresolved, tenants alleged. Tenants who struggle with drinking and drug problems are ignored – and neither the struggling tenants nor the complaining tenants get the help they need, they said.
Carl, who lives in the building with his wife and three young kids, said one of the tenants went missing for months and management never checked up on him.
Another one of Carl’s neighbors had a problem keeping his door closed. He would get drunk and yell or attack other tenants. Carl said his neighbor lost his car and his job and it took “so much” before management stepped in to help.
“I don’t really know how to deal with arguing back and forth with someone who isn’t mentally stable because they have their door wide open and they’re sitting in their underwear,” Carl said, especially when he has his kids with him. “[Management] didn’t address the issue when I brought it to them.”
As a teen growing up in Englewood, Carl managed to escape the pull of gangs and focus on school. His two mentors at Paul Robeson High School inspired him to join the U.S. Navy.
“I thought there was no way out. I thought I’d be dead before 21,” Carl said, adding that his mentors taught him “everything [he] knew about neatness, honor and self-respect.”
“[One of them] said I don’t have to go into the military to be a good man, but the military will help me build a structure that my environment didn’t,” he said.
But life after deployment wasn’t easy. Carl and his family couldn’t find an apartment so they sought help from Veterans Affairs, but the agency placed them in an apartment in Lawndale with a mold problem.
“Eventually, I lost my job. I couldn’t manage my apartment, going to work and all of my clothes had become molded. I had no money to get to work and wash all of my clothes,” he said.
Going from the Lawndale apartment to the 65th Infantry building is like going from “one bad situation to another bad one,” Carl said.
Carl said he’s doing better emotionally since he moved into 65th Infantry — but only because of the case workers he sees outside of the building.
“The building hasn’t helped at all. Not at all. They haven’t lifted one finger,” Carl said.
‘People here couldn’t give a damn’
Hispanic Housing declined to do a sit-down interview with Block Club.
In emails, the development team called the allegations outlined in this story troubling and stressed that it takes “all matters seriously,” but also defended its work on the building.
“This project would not be the success that it is without the residents, the community and service support and the ongoing dedication and commitment of our staff,” Patricia Bonta with Hispanic Housing said in an email.
“We are committed to providing decent, safe and affordable housing to former veterans and we value the support from our community and other partners,” Bonta said.
The development team also defended its use of armed security guards, saying a “safety issue for the building, residents and all staff. … required armed guards.”
“Settling cracks” are normal in new buildings, the developer said.
“When reported or found during unit inspections, the settling cracks are repaired if required,” the developer said.
The developer said it had no complaints of black mold “but will be inspecting all units.”
On-site services are being provided, the developer insisted, but by Jesse Brown VA Medical Center’s case managers and outside service agencies.
On the computer lab, the developer said, “We are working out the final IT issues, establishing the policy and procedures and plan to open the computer lab by the end of June.”
More broadly, the developer said resident complaints are “taken seriously and addressed in a timely manner.”
“We conduct resident meetings, coffee socials, distribute monthly calendars and notices to ensure communication with residents and encourage open discussion. Management has an open door policy and encourages residents to communicate any concerns, feedback, and/or suggestions,” the developer said.
Tenants said there are only two meetings held in the community room — a tenant-led art class and an informal coffee meetup, vastly different than the services once promised.
Tenants interviewed by Block Club said they don’t feel cared for.
“I thought it was all about the veterans and it’s not. It’s all about Hispanic Housing,” one tenant said.
“What is done here is not for the benefit of the veterans. Everything is done for the benefit of Hispanic Housing. It’s political, like, look at what we’re doing. People here couldn’t give a damn.”
‘What’s the point of staying? I could go somewhere else that would actually help me’
John isn’t where he thought he’d be at his three-year mark of living in the 65th Infantry building. He still struggles with PTSD and substance abuse, issues he developed after he returned home from deployment.
Because of that, he said he wants to move out. But that’s easier said than done, given his history of homelessness.
“I’ve been looking at other places. … If I had somewhere [to go], I would’ve left a long time ago,” John said.
“I’m not getting what I was promised, so what’s the point of staying? I could go somewhere that would actually help me.”
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