Future of Austin's YMCA unknown

Neighbors concerned about facility because of end of mental health program, condition of building

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The closing of a small residential program for the mentally ill at the Austin YMCA on Chicago's West Side has raised neighborhood concerns over the future of the deteriorating building and the community center it houses.

A YMCA spokeswoman denied that there are plans to tear down the building, sell it or close the facility at 501 N. Central Ave., but stopped short of making any blanket assurances about the future.

"I can't make absolute statements about anything," said Lee Concha, spokeswoman for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. "We constantly evaluate our properties, our programs, our services, to make sure we are meeting the needs of the community."

Lorrie Jones, director of the Division of Mental Health for the Illinois Department of Human Services, oversaw funding for the 29-unit residential program and said staff cited maintenance as an ongoing issue.

"I do think they were looking for a buyer" for the building, Jones said. She said officials referred to a "redefined focus of the YMCA's strategic plan" as the reason for closing the program.

A spokeswoman for Mercy Housing Lakefront, which develops and manages low-income housing, said the organization has been in talks with the YMCA about the building "for at least a year."

"We are talking to them regarding the building that is being used for housing," said spokeswoman Lisa Kuklinski. She said she could not elaborate.

Concha said the decision to end the mental health program was tied to state budget cuts and not to any rumored plans to sell or dispose of the building.

"We haven't made any determination about the building," she said.

"We could not fund the program on our own without the state funding," Concha said, adding that the program lost 20 percent of its state funding this year on the heels of steep cuts in 2009. Since 2008, the state has reduced funding for the program to $155,755 from $452,751, she said.

However, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Services said state funding was reduced based on bills submitted by the YMCA.

"It's not a budget cut at all," said Tom Green. "A lot of agencies have tried to spin it that way, but truthfully, it's not the case. The contract amounts were adjusted for actual billing performance."

The decision revived suspicions in the neighborhood, where Shanika Finley, a lifelong resident of the area and a candidate for Chicago alderman, said she has been trying to no avail to get straight answers from YMCA officials about their plans for the building.

"It is a staple of the community," she said. "Why isn't the community being included in these dialogues?"

Finley said that Richard Malone, CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, recently acknowledged that he met with "stakeholders" about the building's future and that renovations have been estimated at $15 million.

Concha said she was unaware of any meetings that had been held to discuss the future of the building. She said Malone was referring to routine meetings with local officials.

"We're actually looking for ways to expand our programs inside and outside of that building," she said, citing the recent expansion of an after-school program and the addition of rowing and flag football.

Finley, who has made the issue a cornerstone of her campaign against Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th, said she has asked YMCA officials to include the community in their planning. She said she also has asked YMCA officials for a letter stating that there are no plans to close the Austin YMCA, but has received no assurances.

The facility, a long-standing institution in the neighborhood, includes 263 rooms rented to low-income residents and a variety of recreational and after-school programs.

Concha said the mental health program represented only a fraction of the services that the facility provides and that new living arrangements have been found for all but two of the 22 men in the program.