Story by Jason Porterfield
In Chicago’s Albany Park community, halting gang violence will no longer be as simple as contacting a local violence mediation group. After less than two years in operation, the neighborhood’s CeaseFire office shut down last month due to state budget cuts.
By cutting state grants that funded the program, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich deprived CeaseFire of $6.2 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Already, 23 of the organization’s 25 community outreach posts have been forced to close or will close soon said Carmen Biab, a volunteer at CeaseFire’s West Garfield Park office.
The only two offices that will remain open are in Austin and West Garfield Park and most of the employees have been laid off. Each location has only three employees now and what remains of CeaseFire is currently operating with private donations.
“Since September, we’ve had to lay off over 100 people all over the city, including all of our outreach workers. We used to be able to give each office $250,000 from the state to operate through the year, but now all that money is gone,” Biab said. “It’s not just in Chicago, either. We’re just barely hanging on to our offices in Rockford and Cicero.”
CeaseFire began in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood in 2000 as a community-based organization that works to prevent shootings through education, outreach activities such as rallies, and conflict intervention. CeaseFire spread to 25 neighborhoods and other other cities, including Aurora, Waukegan, East St. Louis, Maywood and Decatur.
“People are very upset about CeaseFire closing,” said Kurt Lewis, director of development at the Albany Park Community Center and the former violence prevention coordinator of CeaseFire’s Albany Park office.
“CeaseFire works by giving people the chance to end a tense situation without involving the police and by showing them they don’t need to use violence to win an argument,” Lewis said. “Without it, I think we’ll see a lot more violence, which is a shame because we made so much progress making Albany Park a more peaceful place to live.”
CeaseFire started in Albany Park in September 2005 and brought immediate results. According to a 2006 report by CeaseFire, no shootings occurred in Albany Park between August 2005 and March 2006, a seven-month streak unmatched in the area since 1999.
The organization’s “Stop shooting. I want to grow up” bumper stickers became common sights on vehicles, traffic signs and garbage carts throughout the Northwest Side neighborhood, as volunteers got word out about the organization.
“CeaseFire has definitely been good for the neighborhood,” said Danielle Hagen, a spokeswoman for Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th), whose ward includes part of Albany Park. “After they started their program, we heard far fewer complaints about gangs.”
Lewis of the Albany Park Community Center remains optimistic that Ceasefire’s funding might be restored as state budget talks continue.
“It’s all in [Senate President] Emil Jones‘s hands now,” he said. “I doubt CeaseFire is a priority for him but maybe it will become one if enough people call their representatives.”
With enough votes, the state Senate can override the governor’s budget cuts. Jones, a Blagojevich ally, has not yet allowed the Senate to vote on whether to restore funding
Justice & Crime Northwest Side Public
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