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Center for poor veterans battle to stay open

THE RTW VET Center in Bronzeville on Tuesday, December 1, was given an additional six months to correct several code violations, but the center’s problems are not over. (Photo by Erick Johnson)

RTW Vet Center gets a break to correct numerous code violations, but big challenges lie ahead

They have served the richest country in the world, but when it comes to serving the poor in Washington Park, the battle could not be tougher for a group of Marines on the city’s South Side.

Some of America’s finest are battling to keep open a center for poor veterans amid fears that one of America’s wealthiest and most prestigious universities would launch an attack and wipe out their efforts to serve the homeless.

For the past six months in the leafy neighborhood of Washington Park, a handful of Marines and community volunteers have been fighting to keep open the Remake The World (RTW) Vet Center, a grassroots organization that has been feeding homeless veterans for the past five years out of a historic three-story greystone that’s 122 years old. While volunteers try to help save the RTW Vet Center, the University of Chicago keeps its hopes high in landing the Obama Presidential Library and Museum across the street.

Community activists believe the University of Chicago wants to force them out and purchase their property. But lately, the volunteer’s real battle has been about battling City Hall with little money and an uncertain future.

At 5536 S. King Drive, the building has been a popular hangout for residents and a lively scene for drivers and pedestrians on the streets.

Nearly one month after Chicago was picked as the site of the Obama Library, the RTW Vet Center was slapped with 32 code violations that would cost $52,000 to correct. City inspectors cited the building for having exposed electrical wiring, broken smoke detectors and a backed up sewer system. Because of problems with the furnace, there is no heat in the building. In addition to the code violations, the RTW Vet Center was in danger of being taken over by the city.

The Leathernecks M.C., a group of Marines on motorcycles, were among a number of volunteers who came and made repairs to the RTW Vet Center’s aging building. The city gave the center until Tuesday, December 1, to correct the code violations or face $16,000 in fines per day. With only half of the repairs made, volunteers were worried that the center would be forced to close after their efforts fell short of the city’s deadline.

But in a courtroom that Tuesday morning at the Richard J. Daley Center in The Loop, about 20 volunteers from the center cheered after the city extended its deadline by another six months, giving the RTW Center until May to make the repairs.

“Praise the Lord,” said Arnetha Gholston, RTW’s founder.

The news encouraged Arnetha Gholston, who suspected the University of Chicago called the city’s building inspectors to examine the center’s building. In its early years, the school was known for establishing housing convenants that kept Blacks out of Hyde Park.

University officials have denied playing a role in the city’s inspection and noted the RTW’s building is not part of the Obama library proposal.

Tuesday’s move ensures that the RTW Center would continue serving the homeless through the holidays.

With little to no funding the center manages to serve nearly 5,000 meals a month (as the repairs continue, that amount has been reduced to 3,200). The center also provides counseling, job placement and training to veterans. Last June, the center participated in a Hunger Walk at Soldier Field. RTW Center has no paid staff. All workers, including Gholston are volunteers who value the center.

The center’s problems are far from over. The center’s kitchen is part of an enclosed back porch that is deteriorating. Because the kitchen was built before building code requirements, it was grandfathered in and not subject to modern city standards.

That may change if RTW is forced to rebuild the room and a zoning variance would be needed before the work is done. It’s a lengthy process that could mean costly delays and problems for RTW and to the people the center serves.

But with many repairs to go, RTW’s volunteers are taking progress one day at a time.

“This place is an important part of the community. This center needs our help,” said Gayle Coco, a volunteer for RTW.

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