East Chicago residents deal with finding new homes after lead contamination
By Laurel Demkovich
EAST CHICAGO, Ind. – Driving away from the poisoned dirt, Tara Adams stared through the rain at the road ahead.
She turned to her neighbor in the passenger seat. “Do I throw away my mattresses? What about my washer and dryer?”
Her mattresses were old, so she didn’t mind throwing them out, but her washer and dryer were new.
Everything was happening so fast. Adams, 43, and her neighbor Rita Rolan, 40, lived in the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, where lately moving vans could be seen on every corner. Signs had sprouted near the playgrounds and lawns: “DO NOT PLAY IN THE DIRT OR AROUND THE MULCH.”
The soil in the complex contained alarmingly high amounts of lead. Some yards’ levels reached 70 times the level before the Environmental Protection Agency requires emergency removal.
The EPA had advised parents to keep kids indoors, wash their toys and hands regularly and remove their shoes before they came in the house. Despite the warnings, children in the complex continued to run from yard to yard, throw footballs and ride their red-and-white tricycles. Because where else could they go?
The houses would be demolished in a few short months, so Adams had no other choice but to spend this Saturday morning driving from town to town in Northwest Indiana searching for a new place to call home.
With a Section 8 voucher, confusing rules and procedures for moving and only a few months to find a rental, the search was becoming more difficult each day.
Trying to stay positive, Adams rolled down the windows and turned on “Lovers & Friends” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz.
“Get ready for the concert!” Adams said as she began to sing.
Laughing, Rolan sang along. “We gotta laugh to keep from crying.”
In May, Adams got the knock on the door. The East Chicago Housing Authority was passing out forms, telling everyone to get their children tested for lead. Just a precaution, they said. Nothing was wrong. That’s when many residents brought their children to the housing authority office to get their fingers pricked.
A week later, Adams and the other residents found out the extent of the lead contamination in their neighborhood. Built in the early 1970s, the complex had been constructed on the grounds of an old lead smelter site. Lead and arsenic had seeped into the soil where about 680 children played, inside the houses where Adams and Rolan and their families had lived for nearly eight years and into the blood of many children and adults.
About 1,000 people lived in the complex, in an area of Indiana just outside Chicago where rural country and urban suburb meet. Smokestacks loomed over cornfields and subdivisions. Most nights, the haze in the air blocked all of the stars except the Big Dipper.
In East Chicago, most residents were black, Latino or Hispanic. The median household income was around $27,000, and the population below the poverty line was nearly twice the national average.
City officials might not have known the extent of the contamination until May, but the lead wasn’t new. The EPA had been talking about cleaning up the site since the 1980s. They’d even begun to replace some of the soil.
Residents asked questions every chance they could. But sometimes the answers didn’t help.
“Should you have kids playing in your yard?” one resident asked at a hearing in 2012. “No. But can you keep your kids from playing in your yard? No. So what are you going to do? Let your kids play.”
In late July, residents learned they would need to be gone by December.
The crisis mirrored a situation earlier this year in Flint, Michigan, which is in the same EPA region as East Chicago. Lead contaminated Flint’s drinking water after the city switched its supply, poisoning many people, especially children.
In East Chicago, a sign near the housing authority’s main office read: A Community That Cares. Near the playground, the water tower said: For Our Children.
Adams shared her house with her three children and one grandchild, ranging in age from 2 to 22. No one living in her house had high amounts of lead in their system, thankfully. Her family was lucky. In other houses, kids threw up and had headaches, chills and fevers.
Seeing the children affected by lead angered Adams the most. She worked in childcare for more than 20 years and as a special education instructor in the School City of East Chicago for three years. She said these kids were already labeled or belittled because of where they came from, something out of their control.
Like most moms’ cars, her 2016 white Toyota Camry was ready for anything. It was complete with a car seat in the back, a LeapFrog workbook, lotion and snacks. It was September, but the coffee cup sitting in the cup holder said “Merry Christmas!” Her kids had lost her other ones.
Adams wanted something better for her children. A life where their names weren’t associated with poverty or lead contamination. A life where they didn’t settle – like Adams had when she moved into the complex eight years ago. A life where they felt comfortable and safe.
That all would start with finding the perfect house.
She had little information from the EPA, the housing authority or city officials. So, driving toward the first house on the list, Adams still had the same thoughts, questions and worries she’d had months ago.
Thinking out loud, she asked herself, “What’s next?”
Adams’s house – the one nearest the front gate of the complex – never felt like a home. It was one of the first rentals she could find, and she never planned to stay more than a year. She hung nothing on the walls. She was always ready to move.
Now she finally had that chance. A tower of boxes, some empty and some filled with toys, sat in her back room. Stacks of green bins containing clothes and blankets lined the edges of her hallway. Broken-down boxes leaned against the walls near her front door.
The next house she lived in, she needed to love.
“I don’t want to live like that again,” she said.
She needed a five-bedroom house and would move anywhere except for Gary. After looking at crime rates and school systems, Gary seemed like her last option. And yet, on hour two of her house search, Adams found herself crossing the border into Gary.
Adams turned onto a street with a house Rolan wanted to see. Boarded-up houses sat on both sides. Rolan began counting: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.”
“Here it is,” Adams said, slowing down. The window blinds were broken and the siding on the house looked cracked.
“Across from the seventh abandoned house? No, thank you.”
The East Chicago Housing Authority had received $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help families move. Each family received a Section 8 voucher based on income to cover rent. The housing authority also reimbursed them for relocation costs.
Their vouchers could be used anywhere in the country, but when residents tried to find a house in a city other than East Chicago, they had to “port over” – a process that could take weeks. Once they ported over, they ran the risk of not finding a house in that city. Then they’d be stuck and have to start the process again.
Many landlords didn’t accept Section 8 vouchers, and many believed a stereotype surrounding government housing that Adams and Rolan said they’d felt time and time again.
“Hi, do you accept Section 8?”
They felt grouped as uneducated, poor, low-class. The vouchers helped them move, but the stigma behind them hurt.
As Adams and Rolan stared down the street in Gary, they looked at the boarded-up houses and overgrown weeds. Defeated, Adams sped away.
“Maybe I’m just being picky,” she said.
Hundreds of residents crowded their community center at an Aug. 3 public hearing wanting answers. When did they need to be gone? How would they move? Would they be getting vouchers or relocation reimbursements?
Between 1970 and 1973, the West Calumet Housing Complex had been built on the site of the Anaconda Lead Products facility. Lead dust also blew onto the site from the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery that sat just to the south.
USS Lead ceased operations in 1985. Soil samples done by the EPA at that time showed lead levels at 100 parts per million. In 1997, soil samples at the complex came back at up to 140 ppm. The EPA doesn’t begin cleanup until 400 ppm. A memo with the 1997 soil called for “no further assessment.”
When Adams moved into her house in 2008, she knew none of this.
During the years since USS Lead closed, mayors, representatives and government officials on nearly every level expressed concerns to EPA administrators about the health risks of living on this soil. In 2009, the property was named an EPA Superfund site.
Although the EPA tested the soil in the complex for years, city officials said that they didn’t see any results until May. Adams and other residents were not convinced.
For Adams, the government, a system that asks for trust every day, let them down.
“They lied to us from the beginning,” Adams said. “On purpose.”
Adams drove 20 minutes south to Merrillville, a town filled with car dealerships, subdivisions and the area’s biggest shopping mall. Almost half the population was white, and the median household income was nearly double that in East Chicago.
Adams saw a subdivision and decided to drive through it, even though it wasn’t on her or Rolan’s list. The neighborhood was filled with vinyl-sided houses, each looking the same as the next. The houses had two stories and yards lined with perfectly-cut grass.
This was what Adams wanted – a house big enough for all five children and a yard where they could play. But with her voucher of $1,229, she knew she could never afford it.
Her ideal house would have two levels and a basement. It would be in a town with a good school system for her two youngest children. It would have a two-car garage and a large window in the living room for the sun to shine through.
Adams sighed and reached for her bag of Life Savers Gummies. “I can dream, can’t I?”
An hour passed, and Adams headed toward Hammond, crossing over railroad tracks and passing a movie theater, a few parks, a dance studio and a gun range. There were only certain places in Hammond she would consider. Like East Chicago, Hammond had many industrial areas, and Adams wanted to get away from that.
Adams turned onto a street to look at the final house of the day. As she pulled up, she wasn’t discouraged right away.
The neighborhood was nice, and the house looked big – big enough for all five of them. The surrounding houses were colorful, a first of all the neighborhoods they had seen that day.
This one-story house on the corner was butter-yellow. It had a garage and trees in the front yard, which was large enough for her children to play. She smiled and nodded, feeling like she was finally getting somewhere. Moving was a headache, and the urgency of it was frustrating. But maybe it was all for the best.
Despite how much she loved the house, Adams couldn’t let herself get too excited. She need to port into Hammond, so she could apply her voucher, which could take weeks. During this process, another family with a voucher already in Hammond could take the house.
Despite the long weeks ahead, Adams was hopeful for the first time all day. She switched the car into drive and turned up the radio. “My Girl” by The Temptations was playing. She looked at Rolan and got ready to sing.
I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.
When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.
The hassle of moving hurt now. When it was over, though, she was sure it would be better than it was before.
To her, the whole thing was a game. But she was going to win.