A massive influx of federal anti-violence dollars starts to hit the streets of Chicago

The $2 million paid out in June is the first down payment on a pledge to spend $250 million in federal funds on violence prevention.

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Cecilia Mannion stands for a portrait outside her home on the Southside, Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Cecilia Mannion is a victim advocate for the Little Village-based nonprofit organization Enlace Chicago.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

After walking out of Sagrada Familia Funeral Home with the family of Vincent Hernandez, Cecilia Mannion got in her car and called her boss.

“I need counselors here.”

Mannion was in the middle of helping Hernandez’s family set up funeral arrangements and figure out how to pay for them. Now, she wanted to make sure there would be mental health professionals at the funeral to support his family.

Hernandez, 39, was shot and killed in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood two days earlier. He left behind four children, the youngest is just 3 years old.

Mannion is a victim advocate for the Little Village-based nonprofit organization Enlace Chicago. From experience, she knew it would be important for counselors to be at the funeral “to help support these young kids through the process of ‘why dad’s laying in a casket? Or why dad’s not talking to them.’”

Besides working on the funeral, Mannion had sat with Hernandez’s family for hours overnight at the hospital and was helping them communicate with police about the shooting.

Mannion also tries to ease tensions after bullets have been fired and get in front of anyone who might be seeking revenge. And while it’s not a concern she has about Hernandez’s family, it’s an important part of her job, convincing friends and family to let police and courts deal with the shooter.

Enlace Chicago is one of about four dozen organizations that got checks last month from the state of Illinois, the down payment on a pledge by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to funnel $250 million in federal COVID-relief funds to community-based organizations working to address the state’s gun violence crisis that was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s Office of Firearm Violence Prevention sent out $2 million in grants last month. Enlace’s cut was almost $30,000, and the state has pledged to send another $650,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the organization over the next three years. State officials are quick to point out this influx of federal dollars is on top of millions the state is already spending on organizations like Enlace each year.

‘Sometimes we see a need, and we can’t wait’

Jesse Huerta, violence intervention manager at Enlace, said the organization spends its public dollars on special youth programming for young people in Little Village, events for residents, ongoing gang intervention efforts and victim support services like the kind Mannion provides.

Weeks of shadowing Mannion by WBEZ show she is rarely off the clock and is ceaselessly devoted to the grieving families and gunshot survivors she serves. That devotion frequently means she dips into her own limited personal funds to buy bandages and saline solution for gunshot victims or help a struggling family get a bite to eat.

Huerta said workers using their own money is “not encouraged within the agency, but sometimes we see a need, and we can’t wait.”

“So we definitely need a lot more support to build capacity, to build on the victim advocacy work, to build on street outreach,” Huerta said. “There’s a lot of people that are in need that we may not be able, because of capacity, to provide the services necessary.”

Cecilia Mannion goes through numerous prayer cards at her home of past individuals she has helped or aided grieving families on the Southside, Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Cecilia Mannion goes through numerous prayer cards at her home of individuals she has helped or aided grieving families on the South Side.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Department of Human Services Assistant Secretary Chris Patterson said helping organizations like Enlace better serve their communities is exactly why his Office of Firearm Violence Prevention was created last year.

“There are mom-and-pop small organizations that are doing violence prevention work and have been for decades. Those organizations have been operating on shoestring budgets or out of their own pocket,” Patterson said.

He said he is dedicated to partnering with organizations that have true roots in the state’s most violent communities and can use their knowledge to reach people “who are trapped in the cycle of violence.”

The Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, the head of Live Free Illinois, advocated for the state to spend federal COVID relief dollars on anti-violence efforts. She said she’s grateful the money is getting out to community organizations but wishes it was happening faster.

“Ideally, it would have been awesome if a lot of this money was available prior to summertime in Illinois, when we know that there’s gonna be an uptick in violence,” Bates-Chamberlain said.

She said her group and others like it are affording “grace” to state leaders “understanding that this is new, they’re trying to put together their strategies and systems.”

“But when there’s the urgency related to actually saving lives, I mean, of course, we will say we would have liked for the money to be out sooner,” Bates-Chamberlain said.

Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou said in addition to the grants to violence prevention organizations, her agency also committed millions to youth development and other areas meant to aid in reducing gun violence. For the state’s fiscal year that ended last month, Hou said they got $76 million out the door, out of $84 million committed.

Hou said in the world of public funding, that is “absolutely” a good ratio of dollars committed to dollars sent out.

‘So far it’s working’

On the Thursday evening before the Fourth of July weekend, a big inflatable slide was set up on the former site of the Rockwell Gardens public housing complex. The slide was the center of an event in a park near West Jackson Boulevard and South Rockwell Street featuring hot dogs, card games and blaring music.

Sirenzo Strong, an anti-violence worker for Garfield Park-based Breakthrough Urban Ministries, said the “Light the Night” event was intended to give the neighborhood kids and adults a safe place to play. It was also a chance to swarm the sometimes tense area with anti-violence workers like Strong, who grew up on the West Side.

“Trying to keep the peace, trying to [persuade people to] put the guns down. And so far, it’s working,” Strong said as he walked through the crowd, head on a swivel.

It was a beautiful, relaxed night, but Strong said this location is a major point of focus for his violence prevention organization because people with connections to the former housing complex return to their old neighborhood and fights can develop.

City data show seven shootings in the area so far this year. That’s not a particularly high number for the West Side but bad relative to the low population. And Strong said disputes between different groups that congregate around the park can end up leading to shootings elsewhere on the West Side.

“This is a real hot spot, because if something happens down here, it messes up the whole summer,” Strong said. “Because this is like the place where everybody hangs and congregates. Everybody knows each other, and then it’s like, it’s … three different organizations that are around and when something happens, it can go haywire and go through the whole city.”

Breakthrough, where Strong works, is another organization that got some of the funding in June. To workers like Strong, every night at work has incredibly high stakes, even if they aren’t immediately clear to an outside observer.

Tonya Reed works at Breakthrough, too, and was at the June 30 event as well. She said in a prior year a Light the Night party at the park had been ended by a shootout. No one was hit, she said, because they “had the angels protecting us.” Reed said that shooting might have dissuaded other groups from coming back.

But they knew how important it is to maintain a peaceful presence at the park.

“We just want to be a blessing to the neighborhood and just bring down the violence,” Reed said.

She said she’s grateful for the public dollars helping to make that happen.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

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