A West Garfield Park center that provides food, housing assistance, case management and counseling services to people affect by HIV/AIDS has been left scrambling in the past couple weeks to provide those services, after acts of vandalism have left the center without electricity and, as of Thursday, without air conditioning.
Vital Bridges Center on Chronic Care, a division of Heartland Health Outreach, Inc., helps people impacted by HIV/AIDS throughout metropolitan Chicago to improve their health and build self-sufficiency by providing food, nutrition counseling, housing, care coordination and prevention services. The acts of vandalism have directly affected the center's ability to serve its approximately 300 clients.
"It started a couple weeks ago," Vital Bridges' Chief Healthcare Strategist Debbie Hinde said. At that time vandals cut the building's electric cables, which left the Vital Bridges Center in the West Garfield Park neighborhood without electricity. Since the center's refrigerators and freezers were affected, staff at the center had to "move all our food to other sites," Hinde said.
"A week later," Hinde said, the same thing happened, but, "then they went on the roof and they took the majority of a very large air conditioning unit. And the reason for that is copper," which is sold as scrap metal, she said. Hinde estimates that the cost to repair the damage and replace the wiring and the stolen HVAC coils will be at least $50,000.
Though repairs and replacement costs will exceed $50,000, Hinde said, "the irony is out of all of it they'll probably get a few hundred dollars."
She noted that "even though the money they get (for the copper and wiring) isn't that much," when compared to the repair and replacement costs, the affect these acts have had on the center's clients is deeply felt.
Since the first incident, the clients who visit the West Side location have not been able to receive nutritious food or reach their case managers or housing specialists. As a result, clients are unable to communicate difficulties ranging from troubles with rent and utilities to health and wellness issues, a release from Vital Bridges said.
"The health of our clients is fragile and without these vital services to nourish them and help them stabilize their lives, they face serious challenges," Vital Bridges' Food & Nutrition manager Laura Ritland said. "Vital Bridges' clients typically live on $800 or less a month, so buying fresh produce, dairy, meats and fish at many supermarkets is impossible. They rely on quality food and Vital Bridges is the primary source for many."
"It's very sad, because it's hurting people who are hurting," Hinde said. "People who are sick come to us," she said, and those clients haven't been able to get all the services they may need because of the center's issues with lack of electricity and air conditioning because of these thefts.
Vital Bridges is affected additionally because the $50,000 that it will take to make the needed repairs -- insurance covers some, but all of those costs -- won't be going to help clients. "These aren't expenses you budget for," Hinde said. The money they get, from sources that include government funding, is meant to "put food on people's tables," for instance. "That funding isn't meant to take care of what vandals and thieves do."
The center's electric cables have been replaced and on Thursday they were moving food back in, Hinde said. They still have no air conditioning, though. They have a replacement unit but as of Thursday they have no way to get it onto the roof of the center.
Once it does get on the roof, it -- as well as the building's wiring -- will have to be strongly secured, which will also cost money. "It's clear to us that we're going to have to get the money to make it impossible (for the thieves to strike again)," Hinde said.
"We are certainly not the only business/organization that has suffered this kind of destruction and loss," Hinde said. "It has become an epidemic in this community. And, since there is a market for the copper with no questions asked about its origin, it doesn't seem like there will be an end in sight. It is very disheartening and has a tremendous negative impact on our clients' lives and our ability to serve them."
Since its founding in 1988, Vital Bridges has provided more than 11 million meals, 650,000 nights of shelter and 250,000 hours of counseling to more than 10,000 clients, the release said. The Garfield Park center is one of four in the city and suburbs. Hinde did not wish to provide the exact address of the West Garfield Park center because of the sensitive nature of the clients' cases.
If anyone has any leads regarding the person(s) involved in these acts, they are asked to notify Harrison District police, at (312) 746-8386.