Who’s Already Doing the Work?

A few Austin-area nonprofits imagining change on the West Side

In neighborhoods where investment from the city is often inadequate, people often look within other community networks for support. Housing, health care and economic opportunities are all facets of a thriving community. In Austin, there are a number of not-for-profit agencies and neighborhood groups that offer direct and secondary services to those who need them. We spoke to five of these groups and outlined who they are, what they do and what they envision for their community. 

Westside Health Authority

Jacqueline Reed founded Westside Health Authority (WHA) in 1988, and it is now headed by her son, Morris Reed. There are six locations throughout the West Side, primarily in the Austin area. 

Morris said that WHA was originally founded out of a need for access to immediate health care and health-related support from people within the community. 

“At the time, there was a lot of disinvestment in hospitals and health clinics and mental health services. That was 40 years ago, and that disinvestment happened because people felt that

it just wasn’t economical or wasn’t resource efficient, to provide services in areas where there wasn’t a lot of wealth,” Morris said. 

He went on to say that during this period, city planners, investors and health professionals did not build health-related infrastructure within Black neighborhoods on the West Side, assuming they would travel further east for health care. 

“But the need was always there. The decision makers who didn’t live in a neighborhood felt that community people could just address their health concerns by going to the Medical District, which is now the near West Side by the whole UIC Medical District.” 

Morris also said that insufficient public transportation and other barriers created the need for health and wellness services within the neighborhood. WHA seeks to be an asset to people in the neighborhood and provide solutions to public health disparities. 

“[WHA is] getting into that fight, and really making sure that these health assets add some presence and create a larger view of what is health and wellness,” he said. “Public health encompasses so much. It goes from economics, employment, education.” 

This multi-issue approach is reflected in some of the services that WHA provides, which includes housing. 

During COVID-19, WHA has been working with its network of elderly people as well as its primary network age group of 16- to 24-year-olds around virus education, and has provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to 1,000 households, according to Morris. 

WHA connects with households through a text alert system, virtual meetings and an emergency hotline that WHA can use to respond directly to people’s needs. Given the economic distress placed on members of the community during COVID-19, housing has also been a major concern for WHA. The WHA recently received funding from BET + United Way to help aid families in the neighborhood. 

“The BET award that we got can give up to $1,000 to 45 families, just to kind of help bridge that gap in their rental needs,” Morris said. “We provide housing for about 30 residents in our multiple residential properties, and we’ve given them a moratorium on paying rent, especially those who are unemployed due to COVID-19.”

He said that although WHA has programs in place to help, a large part of what they do is to connect residents with other groups when the needs outweigh their capacity to serve.  

“Of course, the demand is higher than what we have. So we are also working with other organizations to see what resources they have. And so when we tap out, we tap another organization in or another church to kind of help.”

Going forward, Morris said that community needs for housing require long-term reinvestment and job market support. WHA’s role in this is a planned 120 new housing units and supporting mixed-use business and residential development. 

“We hope a development like the Chicago prize and the redevelopment in the housing that we have attached to it would change the perception,” Morris said. The Chicago Prize is a $10 million community grant awarded by the Pritzker-Traubert Foundation. “[It] will give people more hope about the future and would want to build right here in Austin and include, you know, for their families, as well as for themselves.”

Want to get in contact with Westside Health Authority? Call (773) 378-1878 or fill out the contact form on their website. 

Austin Coming Together

Austin Coming Together (ACT), like the puzzle in its logo, is Austin’s community connector, rather than a provider of resources. Formed in 2010 from a small group of community leaders, ACT was intended to streamline the process of connecting resources to residents in Chicago’s largest community area.  

“We help people work together to make a bigger impact collectively,” said Alicia Plomin-Spitler, ACT’s marketing manager. “Being aware of what is happening around you helps you create a more targeted strategy to fill gaps and avoid missteps.”

ACT is sort of a one-stop shop. Austin residents contact ACT and they’re put in contact with the community engagement coordinator, who conducts a short interview with the resident to better understand their challenges. 

ACT then refers the residents to one of their more than 50 member organizations that serve Austin in one way or another, mostly other nonprofits.

As opposed to a Google search, ACT serves as a connector service between organizations and residents. 

“It’s relationship based,” Plomin-Spitler said. “We have relationships with the organizations we’re referring out to and the resources we’re referring to.”

For example, ACT is able to tell residents exactly who to contact from a specific organization, factoring in things like eligibility requirements and informing the organization about the needs, so residents don’t go to these organizations blind.

“The success rate of that referral will be higher because we’re creating trust through relationship building,” Plomin-Spitler said. 

Because ACT is membership based, it can also provide support to other nonprofits. Recently, ACT assisted 24 Austin organizations in successfully applying for grants from the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities program.

In the past few months ACT has seen an increase in calls for five areas: COVID-19 information, housing, safety, food assistance and aid to families struggling with distance learning, as the technology infrastructure wasn’t in place for Austin during the pandemic. 

“When the pandemic hit we realized that our role has become even more essential and the need that we’re seeing had increased because of the health concerns,” Plomin-Spitler said, “so we have actually created our own response strategy. We’ve just built upon the work that we have been doing for the last 10 years,”

In May, ACT launched a food pantry, which is open every Thursday. It organized community gardening volunteer days with Austin Gardening Collective that began June 20. Residents who were excluded from the federal government’s stimulus program can apply for $1,000 cash grants by calling ACT.

Earlier this month, ACT helped organize three clean-ups in Austin after the looting that followed protests of the police killing of George Floyd.

It was chosen as the Austin organization for the city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to combat racial COVID-19 racial disparities.

ACT’s connection to residents is usually rooted in the community engagement team. That team typically would work on the ground, through events like the restorative justice peace circles they hold with groups of young Austin residents. With COVID-19, they’ve had to rely on the connections they’ve made and have been working to adapt.

They adapted by compiling a weekly COVID-19 resource email, which includes resources for residents as well as businesses. 

Longterm, ACT developed a comprehensive quality of lifeplan called Austin Forward. Together to “restore Austin and create something new.”

ACT is available to Austin residents by phone and email — since COVID-19 shutdowns have pushed the organization virtual.

Want to get in contact with Austin Coming Together? Call (708) 627-0570 or fill out the contact form on their website. 

By The Hand Club for Kids 

By the Hand Club for Kids is a nonprofit which offers support to students in some of Chicago’s most underserved and historically divested communities, stressing that the solution to the communities’ problems lie within its youth.

By the Hand is an after-school program for students, which includes meals and educational and spiritual guidance. The nonprofit has five locations around the city, ranging from Cabrini-Green on the North Side to Altgeld-Murray and Englewood on the South Side and Austin on the West Side. 

The organization, which is faith-based, began as a pilot program of the Moody Church in 2001. At the time it was composed of 16 children from the surrounding community of Cabrini-Green.

On its website, the program offers a comprehensive timeline of its growth and development from the founder Donnita Travis’ first idea to start the program in 1997 to October 2019. In 2005, By the Hand opened its second location in Altgeld-Murray in 2005, followed by the opening of its Austin location in 2007 and Englewood in 2008.  

Upon the opening of its Austin location in April 2007, the nonprofit reported that it had 500 kids take part in its services. 

According to its website, during the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent stay-at-home orders, By the Hand has conducted over 8,000 student wellness checks, has provided nearly 600 students with internet access and has passed out over 1,000 family food boxes.

By the Hand Club did not respond to email requests and phone calls for an interview  and additional information from 14 East.

Want to get in contact with By the Hand Club? Call (773) 413-0895 or fill out the contact form on their website. 

Oak Park Regional Housing Center

Located right off the Harlem & Lake Green Line Stop, Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC) was founded in 1972, serving “western Cook County,” but primarily Austin, Oak Park and Chicago’s far West Side. The organization operates under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and helps over 50 people a year buy homes through free services such as referrals, fair housing training, and credit and homeownership counseling. 

“We have a homeownership program in Austin,” said Athena Williams, the executive director of OPRHC, “But sometimes we have difficulty getting that homeownership information out.” She said that a lot of the issues around homeownership and housing issues in Austin generally are rooted in a lack of education as to how to build credit and obtain loans.

Black people on Chicago’s West Side were barred from home loans through the now-illegal practice of redlining in the 20th century, creating massive disparities in the amount of money loaned into majority-Black communities like Austin over time. 

OPRHC works alongside other organizations in Oak Park and on the West Side to “coordinate a multifaceted effort to promote and sustain the community’s integration,” according to its website. All of their services are free to everyone.

In addition to providing training, education and advocacy for sustainable, affordable and integrated housing on the West Side, OPRHC is working to establish a community land trust/land bank.

“We’re trying to work with the different entities, institutions that have access to properties to try to establish a community land trust/land bank,” Williams said. “So that we can identify people who are in the community to help them be able to acquire these homes. That’s the only way that people in the community are going to be able to want to remain in their community and help stabilize their own community.” 

Want to get in contact with Oak Park Regional Housing Center? Call (708) 848-7150 or email to receive apartment search information at inforequest@liveinoakpark.com.

West Side United

West Side United works across 10 communities on the West Side, including Austin, as an aggregate organization, bringing other nonprofits under its umbrella and helping to make sure they succeed. The group, currently under the auspices of Rush University, sees its place in the community services ecosystem as being the conveners and the grant-funders for other organizations. West Side United Senior Director for Strategy and Operations Tenisha Jones says West Side United works to support small businesses directly by giving them the resources and the opportunities to increase their impact. 

“We don’t do the hands-on work. We partner and give resources for people on the ground to do the work,” she said. Jones also serves as a board member of Austin Coming Together. 

Rachael Wilson is West Side United’s economic development manager. She says that when COVID-19 hit, the organization shifted all of its priorities to address and support the health crisis, especially given that it’s disproportionately affecting people of color.

Wilson previously worked at LUCHA, a housing-focused organization serving the West Side. It’s from that experience that she has an understanding of the volatility of the housing situation, if not specifically in Austin, then at least on the West Side in general, and what implications that has had in the context of the health crisis. 

“A symptom of how expensive rent is in Chicago is that people often double up or triple up,” Wilson said. “If one person gets COVID, then that means a whole family gets COVID.”

In May, West Side United received a $5 million grant from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation to accelerate its COVID relief efforts and disburse funds. Wilson says that’s the group’s biggest initiative at the moment, though she didn’t respond to follow-up requests about how the money will be dispensed. 

Wilson says that there just isn’t enough money to disburse to the various nonprofits trying to serve the residents of the West Side. When it comes to housing, she would like to see policy changes that would relieve some of the burden placed on the groups and the people they aid. 

“That’s just an overall symptom of neoliberalism. With how much competition there is for the scarce resources,” Wilson said. “It’s up to policymakers and those who have the power to create funding for those things to actually help make it happen. It’s about creating those types of policies within our city, state, and federal government that have people over profit and discourage profit making.”

Want to get in contact with Westside United? Email info@westsideunited.org.

Looking forward

Housing nonprofits, health centers and other organizations provide an idea of what can work for a community — but not necessarily the whole solution. Many of those involved with these nonprofits emphasized that it will take more than a handful of community partners and a few million dollars to create sustainable opportunities on the West Side. 

“What’s really needed is a continuation of stabilizing the blocks,” said Morris of WHA. “Improving the quality of life, addressing housing vacancies and abandoned or foreclosed properties as well. I mean, it has to be comprehensive. People now want a comprehensive plan.”


Header illustration by Bridget Killian.