INDIANAPOLIS — Dozens of families remained at a lead-contaminated public housing complex in northwest Indiana despite a Friday target date to move them out so the city could tear down the buildings.
More than 270 families have left the housing development, West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, and officials hope to have the remaining 50 or so families out within a week. But the delay points to several problems with the evacuation effort, like limited rental options in the formerly industrial area, landlords who will not accept government housing vouchers and some residents’ resistance to being forced from the city.
Tara Adams, who lives in West Calumet and is a lifelong resident of East Chicago, said she has been seeking a new home for herself, her 19-year-old son and her 11-year-old daughter since last summer and has had their belongings packed for months. The temporary housing she has been offered is about 25 miles away, in what she worries is a perilous neighborhood across the state line on Chicago’s South Side.
“I for sure don’t want to move my 19-year-old son into an area where there’s a greater chance for him to get shot,” Ms. Adams said. “I don’t want to do that.”
Officials began clearing out the 45-year-old complex of three-story apartment buildings last summer after detailed soil testing found some yards with lead levels more than 70 times the federal safety standard.
The Environmental Protection Agency soon warned parents to keep their children away from the dirt on the site, which was occupied decades ago by a lead-products factory. Just to the south sat the sprawling United States Smelter and Lead Refinery, or U.S.S. Lead, which salvaged lead from old car batteries and scrap metal before it closed in 1985.
The complex was home to more than 1,000 people, including about 700 children. Tests by the Indiana Department of Health found high lead levels in blood samples from some children. Even at low levels, lead exposure can damage nervous systems and lower I.Q.s, according to experts.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development reached an agreement in November with advocates representing the residents that gave families a break on rent and until the end of March to find new homes.
Of those families remaining at the complex, homes in East Chicago have been arranged for about 30, and fewer than 10 families face possible relocations to Chicago, according to HUD officials. Those unhappy with their relocation options have until Monday to file grievances with the local housing authority.
James Cunningham, HUD’s deputy regional administrator in Chicago, said the limited number of rentals available in East Chicago had complicated efforts to find new homes nearby for all the West Calumet residents.
“The absorption, I think, has gone pretty well given the large number — we had to relocate 332 families,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Final decisions on the relocations rest with city officials, who did not talk with a couple dozen protesters at City Hall last week calling for an extension of the relocation deadline.
Mayor Anthony Copeland said in a statement to news media that he would never advocate moving residents involuntarily “unless we faced an issue of public safety” and that waiting wasn’t an option because of the environmental hazards.
The plans to move some families across the state line into Illinois could cost people jobs and state Medicaid coverage and force children to change schools late in the school year, said Emily Coffey, a lawyer for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which is based in Chicago.
Ms. Coffey said that the relocation agreement from November was meant to maximize the choice residents had in finding new homes and that local housing officials were making “panicked moves” after letting families live at the polluted complex for decades.
“If there are emergency relocations, it’s going to be pretty unlikely that those families are going to be able to move to healthy communities where they’ll have access to good education, good health care and good jobs,” she said.
Ms. Adams still has a sign from the E.P.A. warning against playing in the dirt in the front yard of what has been her family’s home for nine years. She said it’s “by the grace of God” that blood tests have not found high lead levels in her children.
But she said she has been looking constantly for a new home in hopes of keeping her daughter in a school she likes and a community her family knows.
“What’s very frustrating is people making it seem like we’re not looking, or we’re not searching, or we’re just doing nothing,” Ms. Adams said. “I’ve never wanted to be in this situation, so since day one I’ve been trying to find somewhere to live.”
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