Nearby residents get a sneak peek at the Salvation Army’s new Freedom Center campus in West Humboldt Park as workers put the finishing touches on the gymnasium. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Brown: No NIMBYs in this West Side neighborhood

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The Salvation Army is preparing to open a large new substance-abuse treatment center and halfway house for former prison inmates that is practically in Michelle Towns’ backyard.

Defying conventional wisdom, the longtime West Humboldt Park resident will be the first to tell you she and her neighbors couldn’t be happier about the addition to the neighborhood.

“This is the best thing that ever happened in this community,” said Towns, who squealed in delight at several points as a small group of neighbors was given a private tour last week of the Salvation Army’s new six-acre Freedom Center campus at Chicago and Christiana.

“I haven’t had but one person talk bad about the Salvation Army coming here,” echoed her fiancé, Ricky Allen, who said what he hears most often is: “When’s it going to open? What’s it going to have?”


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The couple’s enthusiasm is attributable in large part to a spacious new community center — complete with gym, auditorium and health clinic — that is part of the facility.The community center will allow the Salvation Army to expand its mission to offer recreational and educational opportunities for kids from the neighborhood.

But their favorable opinion is also a recognition of the enormous need this impoverished community has for all the programs that will be housed here.

This is not a neighborhood that can afford a NIMBY mentality. Violence and addiction are already on full display here every day.

The fact that the strip mall next door has razor wire encircling its roof has nothing to do with the people who will be staying at the Salvation Army.

The way Towns sees it, the Salvation Army is the neighborhood’s long-missing ray of hope, a place to go for those willing to accept the help.

“They don’t have to stand at the corner. They don’t have to sleep at the bus stops or in the alley no more,” said Towns.

The Salvation Army will leave its longtime facility on the Near West Side at 1515 W. Monroe. Officials say the century-old building had become too costly to maintain. The organization is in the process of selling the property.

Moving to the new location will be the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, which provides drug- and alcohol-rehab services, and Pathway Forward, which helps federal prisoners transition back into the community.

The Freedom Center will have dormitory-style rooms to accommodate 210 people in the correctional program and another 200 in the substance-abuse program.

Also switching its base of operations to the new site will be the Salvation Army’s mobile feeding and homeless outreach program that has been a frequent subject of my columns.

Nancy Powers, the Freedom Center’s director of development, envisions the recreational opportunities at the new community center as a way to bring local families under the Salvation Army’s wing, where they can take advantage of an array of programs that will include job and computer training, a food bank and even cooking classes.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), recognizing the scope of the Salvation Army’s $62 million investment, championed the project past the bureaucratic hurdles.

The Salvation Army has scheduled a grand opening of the Freedom Center on Friday with a more inclusive open house for the public on Sept. 5.

I joined the tour last week with Towns, Allen, their neighbor, Natavia Spells, and her four children.

Allen, 52, a one-time gang member and ex-offender who has lived in the neighborhood since 1971, said he and Towns organize youth softball teams for neighborhood residents who often come to him for guidance as somebody who put the street life behind him.

He and Towns plan to serve as volunteer supervisors in the gym while the Salvation Army is organizing its after-school and sports programming.

Powers, who already has led prayer walks through the neighborhood in full Salvation Army uniform, said she found the young men on the street corners to be receptive.

“They want change. They don’t want to be standing there,” she said.

This will give them a chance.

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