Chicago Sun-Times


Community groups plan to save ‘the community that once saved us’

- BY MICHAEL LORIA, STAFF REPORTER | @mchael_mchael Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not- forprofit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communitie­s on the So

For years now, brothers Malcolm and Marnell Brown, along with Shrone Conaway, have tried to help people on the West Side, offering a place to stay for those who needed it and connecting people with COVID-19 testing or substance abuse counseling.

They’ve done so with the help of organizati­ons like Howard Brown Health and University of Illinois, but now they’re digging deep into their own pockets to expand their outreach.

The three pooled about $500,000 in savings to purchase a building in Austin, where they plan to open a community center — the Nelson Mandela Center — offering resources for people who need food, housing or jobs.

The three have rented spaces within the building for years but decided to buy it to expand operations and ensure they endure. The building is at Madison Street and Cicero Avenue. That stretch of Cicero has the honorary designatio­n of Mandela Road, which inspired their choice of name.

“We are saving the community that once saved us,” said Conaway, 55, who grew up on the West Side.

The Nelson Mandela Center will occupy about 27,000 square feet of the property and continue the work of Marnell Brown and Conaway’s organizati­on, To Walk in My Shoes, and The Herbert Ballard Foundation, founded by Malcolm Brown.

The Ballard Foundation has helped house women in recovery from substance abuse since 2014. Since 2018, To Walk in My Shoes has helped area residents deal with challenges including HIV/AIDS, violence, domestic abuse and substance abuse.

“We wanted to help people get themselves back together” after a setback, Conaway said.

Among Chicago community areas that track such data, Austin has the second-highest incidence of HIV in the city, according to the Chicago Health Atlas. It also has the highest incidence of opioid-related overdose mortality.

In the new space, residents will be able to seek help in connecting with city and state resources, including those that deal with housing assistance, food insecurity and employment, Conaway said, adding she hoped to create an after-school space for kids as well. Malcolm Brown will help run apartments for men in recovery.

They plan to have the space fully operationa­l by fall.

The first step to opening is getting it fixed up, said Marnell Brown. The three are working on getting a Neighborho­od Opportunit­y Fund grant from the city to help with remodeling.

But that won’t delay the work they do, the 64-year- old said.

Marnell Brown said he and Conaway — they’ve dated for eight years — got heavily involved in the community after discoverin­g similar ambitions for helping improve the area.

“I feel what you feel, and we feel what the community feels. Let’s do something about it,” he remembers saying to Conaway. Their goal was helping people “to rise up out of these conditions we were in spirituall­y, emotionall­y, physically, financiall­y.”

All three have worked out of various West Side properties over the years, but they hope the center will help transform the block.

Their efforts have drawn the support of state Rep. La Shawn Ford, whose office is in the area.

“My goal is to get them money for renovation­s and for their services. Their clients are the most vulnerable people on the West Side,” he said.

Ford said he would try to get funding for their efforts into the state’s next budget because he believes they can help like few others can.

“What’s amazing about this group is they’re actually the very people that understand the population probably better than anybody, because they have their lived experience,” he said.

Malcolm Brown, 61, echoed those sentiments, saying he’s experience­d homelessne­ss and substance abuse and knows the steps people must take to recover.

He said since his family moved into the area the 1960s, the area has declined. Their corner property, he hopes, can anchor a new beginning and be a place the whole community can learn the steps to recovery.

“People need to be able to understand you don’t have to live the way you’ve been living,” he said. “There’s a better way.”

A man from northwest suburban Inverness who owned a COVID-19 testing lab in Chicago is facing federal charges for his alleged role in a COVID-19 testing fraud scheme.

From February 2021 through February 2022, Zishan Alvi and others submitted reimbursem­ent claims to a federal program for COVID-19 tests that were never performed, conducted improperly or that had already been paid for by a client, prosecutor­s said.

During its operation, Laboratory A, which was co-owned by Alvi, obtained more than $83 million from the program. Alvi allegedly transferre­d some of the funds to his personal account and used the money for vehicle purchases and investment­s in stocks and cryptocurr­ency.

Alvi, 44, is charged with 10 counts of wire fraud and one count of theft of government funds, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois said in a statement.

Laboratory A was enrolled in the Health Resources and Services Administra­tion Uninsured Program, which used federal funds to help cover the cost of COVID-19 testing for those without insurance. The lab claimed to perform PCR tests and antigen rapid tests.

But prosecutor­s allege that the lab told some patients that their COVID-19 test had come back negative when no test had been performed. Alvi allegedly directed employees to modify records to show that tests were being done when he knew that specimens were actually being discarded.

To help hide the scheme, the lab didn’t release positive COVID-19 results on some specimens that were eventually tested because the lab had already told clients of the false negative result, prosecutor­s said.

Alvi also allegedly told his employees to alter the lab’s PCR testing method by using less of the materials needed for a reliable result to reduce costs and increase profits.

The indictment seeks forfeiture of at least $6.8 million from Alvi, in addition to five luxury vehicles and funds from trade and investment accounts.

A powerful constructi­on union that contribute­d $1 million to vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is making the same financial commitment to Paul Vallas.

Local 150 of the Internatio­nal Union of Operating Engineers put big money behind its political muscle after joining three other trade unions — IBEW Locals 9 and 134 and Plumbers Local 130 — in endorsing Vallas.

Three months ago, a poll bankrolled by Local 150 before the union made its $1 million commitment to Garcia showed Garcia leading Mayor Lori Lightfoot by 7 percentage points in the first round of the mayoral sweepstake­s and clobbering the incumbent by 31 percentage points in the runoff.

It didn’t turn out that way. Lightfoot was eliminated after finishing third with 16.8% of the vote behind Vallas at 32.9% and Cook County Commission­er Brandon Johnson at 21.6%. Garcia finished fourth with 13.7%.

Now, Local 150’s so- called “Fight Back Fund” is making the same $1 million commitment to Vallas it made to Garcia.

“Paul Vallas has experience working in government. He’s got a collaborat­ive approach. We think he has a track record to put the city on track to bounce back from the depths that it’s at right now as it relates to safety, the dysfunctio­nal relationsh­ip with law enforcemen­t and an adversaria­l intergover­nmental relationsh­ip,” said Local 150 spokesman Ed Maher.

Johnson has called defunding the police a “goal” — not a political slogan, but has steered clear of the term during a mayoral campaign dominated by a surge in violent crime. He has also refused to commit to filling 1,700 vacancies in the Chicago Police Department or fully funding the department’s $1.94 billion budget.

On Monday, Maher cited those reasons for steering clear of Johnson.

“Safety in the city is an extremely important thing to our members and for the future of developmen­t in Chicago. Calls to defund police and things like that were concerning,” Maher said.

“The number of police are down. It’s our belief that the city and the next mayor has to take a cooperativ­e approach with law enforcemen­t,” he said. Law enforcemen­t has to be a part of the solution that keeps the city safe.”

Another concern for Local 150 is Johnson’s $800 million plan to tax the rich to help bankroll $1 billion in new spending on public schools, transporta­tion, housing, health care and job creation.

“The environmen­t … for developmen­t is ... far from ideal. The amount of constructi­on starts that are taking place in Chicago right now are lower than they have been for many years pre-pandemic,” Maher said.

“The city needs leadership that is going to reinstill confidence in the safety of the city and allow developers to feel comfortabl­e opening their checkbooks,” he said.

Local 150 has a notoriousl­y outspoken president in Jim Sweeney — and a track record for putting its money where Sweeney’s mouth is.

In the 2011 mayoral race, Local 150 endorsed Gery Chico. Sweeney denounced Rahm Emanuel, the eventual winner, as a Wall Street “Judas” with “bags of silver” who sold out union workers when he helped muscle the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress. Mayor Richard M. Daley denounced that remark as an antisemiti­c “disgrace.”

In the 2019 mayoral race, Local 150 urged its members to vote against Daley’s brother, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who missed the runoff, finishing third behind Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkl­e.

Johnson is a paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. His campaign is being bankrolled and staffed by the CTU and SEIU Locals 1, 73 and Healthcare.

Over the weekend, Johnson was endorsed by AFSCME Council 31. And on Monday, Johnson picked up endorsemen­ts from 36 newly elected members of Chicago’s 22 police district councils.

 ?? ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES ?? The community group To Walk in My Shoes hopes to turn these storefront­s at 4752 W. Madison St. in Austin into the Nelson Mandela Center.
ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES The community group To Walk in My Shoes hopes to turn these storefront­s at 4752 W. Madison St. in Austin into the Nelson Mandela Center.
 ?? ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES ?? Marnell Brown, founder of the community group To Walk in My Shoes, sits in his office near storefront­s the group plans to turn into the Nelson Mandela Center on the West Side.
ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES Marnell Brown, founder of the community group To Walk in My Shoes, sits in his office near storefront­s the group plans to turn into the Nelson Mandela Center on the West Side.
 ?? ?? Rep. La Shawn Ford
Rep. La Shawn Ford
 ?? ?? Paul Vallas
Paul Vallas
 ?? ?? Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia
Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia

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