At the end of every month, Chalonda McIntosh pays her bills. First, rent, then her car loan, then child care for her son.
“Then, if I have enough left over, I put food in the house,” she said.
But most months, she doesn’t get there. She often can’t pay child care on time and racks up late fees. McIntosh said she’s lucky to have a spot for her son at St. Vincent DePaul’s child care center on North Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, even though the $226 a month she pays after the state’s contribution toward child care is more than what she can often afford. While she’d like to send her youngest son somewhere in the neighborhood, affordable options are limited.
“In the Cabrini-Green community, we have no reliable daycare,” McIntosh said. “They do not accept vouchers. You have to go out of your community to find adequate child care, but none of it’s affordable.”
It’s not only McIntosh who is struggling. A local group called Cabrini Mothers in Power has been working for more than three years to bring an affordable child care and early learning facility to the neighborhood. An analysis by The Chicago Reporter shows that a significant number of children live in the community even though the last of the high-rise public housing buildings was demolished in March.
Despite the perception that children are gone from the neighborhood, the Reporter’s analysis shows that more than 1,100 children under the age of 5 still live in the area, according to the 2009 American Community Survey. Of them, 74 percent are black. There are no longer any child care facilities in the Cabrini area that accept government vouchers, even though the number of young children in the area has decreased by just 20 percent, according to the analysis.
Deborah Hope, one of the leaders of Cabrini Mothers in Power, raised her two children in the Cabrini row houses and used to work as a crossing guard at Jenner Elementary School, a neighborhood school. She said she meets parents regularly who want to work but are struggling to find child care.
“One mom, she was crying her eyes out,” Hope said. “She had just been offered a job at Starbucks, but Jenner could only offer her a half-day program, and she needed a full day. There was nothing in the community.”
Hope said some parents drive their children farther, to the South or West sides, for child care providers who accept state and city vouchers. Other parents stop looking for work.
The community has seen resources for children dwindle as the Cabrini towers were demolished. According to data from Illinois Action for Children, in 2000, as the Plan for Transformation began, there were six child care centers in the census tracts that contained Cabrini that accepted Illinois child care vouchers. In 2010, there were none.
Patricia Ridings has witnessed that decline. She’s a Head Start teacher at Jenner and taught at another neighborhood school for several years before it was closed. In her first year at Jenner, the school had two full-day preschool programs. But in 2010, the school cut the program in half. Now there’s one classroom with a morning and afternoon session for 3- to 4-year-olds, both of which can accommodate only 17 children.
“When they cut the program, it hurt a lot of my families,” Ridings said. “Especially since the buildings have come down, everybody’s everywhere. They don’t have that support. They don’t have the back up, like grandma or auntie to watch the kids.”
The cuts also hurt children academically, many of whom end up not prepared to enter kindergarten, Ridings said. “That’s where the education gap starts.”
The community has tried to get the attention of city officials. Cabrini Mothers in Power has hosted forums and met with local officials, some of whom seemed sympathetic or offered promises but haven’t done much to help bring a child care center to the neighborhood, Hope said.
One of those promises came from former Chicago Housing Authority CEO Louis Jordan. Hope confronted him last year, and he promised that something would change within three years. Jordan has since resigned, and CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar could not confirm whether Jordan’s promise would be honored by new CEO Charles Woodyard.
“A working group composed of stakeholders is responsible for the redevelopment plan. It is unknown what that plan will include,” Aguilar said.
CHA refers residents who need help to Illinois Action for Children. The organization said there are seven child care centers within half a mile of Cabrini. Of them, two cater to government employees, and three have a waiting list of at least a month. Two centers did not respond to our request for information. Of the five that responded, costs ranged from $750 to $1,800 a month, not including registration fees. Even with a voucher, low-income families can end up paying up to 16 percent of their monthly income for child care, according to a recent report on child care in Cook County by Illinois Action for Children.
Cabrini Mothers in Power had also been told that the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services might be willing to fund a center if there were a facility willing to house it. Anne Sheahan, a spokeswoman for the department, said it wants to find a solution to the child care problem in the neighborhood, but there are challenges, including finding a space that won’t cost a lot and that is properly zoned.
As for McIntosh, she’s looking forward to next year when her youngest son goes to kindergarten, and she won’t have to pay for full-day child care. But she knows that the struggles of many of her neighbors won’t be over.
“If they had a full-day service, it’d make a lot of people get up, go to work and [have] more opportunities,” McIntosh said. “There’s not enough resources.”
This article was originally published in January 2012 in The Chicago Reporter.