Nonprofit job training program headed to Austin

City Council votes on zoning change required for Heartland Alliance to start program in closed school

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The Chicago City Council recently approved a zoning change that would allow the nonprofit Heartland Alliance to setup a job training program for former prisoners in a portion of a shuttered elementary school in Austin at 815-831 N. Leamington Ave.  

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the site, said in a statement that the project has been in the works "for a while." She said that the project will go a long way toward addressing high unemployment in Austin and ensure that people most likely to face barriers to employment are able to live productive lives. Mitts introduced the ordinance on Sept. 20 and it was unanimously approved by the full City Council on Nov. 14 as part of a routine vote. 

The building has gone through various uses over the years. According to Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Catholic Schools, the site was home to Our Lady Help of Christians elementary school until it closed in 1998. 

In 2002, San Miguel School, a Back of the Yards private junior high school, teamed up with St. Joseph Services charitable organization to launch what was dubbed San Miguel School-Gary Comer Campus. According to the school's website, the owners closed it in 2012 due to "economic circumstances."

Heartland Alliance is an anti-poverty organization that operates a wide array of programs, including several workforce development programs. On the West Side, that includes East Garfield Park-based Chicago FarmWorks, where residents facing "multiple barriers to employment" can get job skills and experience by working on a farm; and FamilyWorks Lawndale, which helps residents who either live in public housing or have rental subsidies get and keep jobs.

In her statement, Mitts said that Heartland's new Austin project "addresses the critical need for job training and placement to help reduce Austin's over 20 percent unemployment rate.

"My community and I support this innovative approach to empower and expand opportunities for local residents seeking to recover [and] establish more stable, productive lives."

Mitts also stated that the project received "strong community support after numerous meetings and information forums," but didn't elaborate beyond that.  

One of the other services Heartland provides is refugee resettlement. This summer, Casa Guadalupe shelter, which is also located within Mitts' ward, housed some of the refugee children detained at the U.S.-Mexican border and separated from their families. The Washington Post reported allegations that children were mistreated and not properly supervised. 

At the time, Mitts was among several West Side politicians who expressed concerns about the allegations and called for them to be investigated.

On July 31, Heartland issued a statement indicating that their internal investigation "found no evidence to support the reported claims."  However, as the statement noted, Illinois Department of Child and Family Services and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General are conducting their own investigations, which were still ongoing as of Dec. 2. 

Mitts did not respond to a follow-up question as to whether she had any concerns about Heartland's work in light of the allegations; however, in her original statement, she expressed confidence in Heartland Alliance as a whole. 

"Heartland Alliance is a 130-year-old human rights organization which provides needed services to Chicago residents in the areas of housing, job training and social justice, among other areas," Mitts stated. "I appreciate many of the supportive programs sponsored by the Alliance."

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