Tevin Russell sits in a quiet room on the third floor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park. He is only minutes from his home in the Austin neighborhood but feels he’s a world away.
“It’s hard growing up” in Austin, said Russell, 21. “I think it’s different growing up there than other places; you grow up a little faster. You can get hurt if you do the wrong thing or get caught in the wrong place.”
He and his friends no longer play basketball at the parks in Austin because it’s too dangerous. He has witnessed many fights over the years and he said they can’t be seen in a place where gang members hang out.
“If people think you’re with [the gangs], they’ll try to get to you, too,” Russell said.
Many of Austin’s youth believe they are stuck in a cycle that will continue to envelop them and their peers if they – and others — don’t start to transform their community.
The numbers are striking.
Austin has seen 27 murders so far this year, down from 37 in 2012. By comparison, Oak Park, Austin’s neighbor to the west, hasn’t had any homicides, and there were just two in 2012.
Russell said one of Austin’s most challenging issues lies in the lack of jobs in the area, where the unemployment rate is 21 percent – well above Oak Park’s 7.6 percent. Oak Park’s per capita income is about $45,000; Austin’s is $16,000.
Too few jobs and not enough money can make the lure of street life too strong to ignore.
“They have no other choice, it’s that way for a lot of people,” Russell said. The younger kids “don’t understand what they’re doing and what they’re getting themselves into.”
Russell said having a support system is key to staying out of gangs and away from drug dealing.
Without the support and guidance of his mother, Russell said he would probably be on the streets. And he’s matured over the last few years with the help of his mentor at Calvary Church, Matt Jones.
Jones, 25, helps run the after-school basketball program at Calvary, which serves as a “safe zone” for residents from Austin, Maywood and Oak Park.
He and his wife, who are white, live in Austin and are minorities in a neighborhood that’s 85 percent African-American.
“We wanted to identify with the kids we were working with,” Jones said. “We build respect and trust when they find out we live in Austin.”
Just letting Austin’s youth talk about their lives helps them cope with their problems, he said. Many don’t have a father, and the majority have been affected by violence in some way, either witnessing serious crimes, being hurt themselves or having had a loved one killed.
Jones said the reality for many kids in Austin is selling drugs and hustling, whether they want to do it or not.
“They have a group of systems and structures working against them,” Jones said.
At Austin’s Peace Corner Youth Center the same stories get repeated by two other young residents.
Sebastian Longstreet, 22, has lived in Austin his whole life. He’s majoring in computer science at Dominican University and works as a mentor and youth supervisor at The Peace Corner, 5022 W. Madison St.
Longstreet said he started selling drugs when he was 12 because his father was in prison and his family needed money to survive. “Food stamps only get you so far,” Longstreet said.
He sold heroin and cocaine until he turned 17 and got arrested. He spent two years in prison, which he described as hell and never wanted to go back. Longstreet said getting arrested made it hard for him to get a job, a problem for many Austin residents.
“No one wants to hire someone with a criminal background,” Longstreet said. “Some people sell drugs because they think there’s no other options. In Austin, there’s not many job opportunities. The only jobs here are low-end jobs.”
That’s led people to stereotype residents, said Ambrell Gambrell, 20.
“People think, ‘They don’t work because they’re lazy.’ People don’t risk their lives selling drugs because they want to — they do it because they have to.”
Gambrell, who also attends Dominican University, said both of her parents were imprisoned until she was 7. She didn’t know until years later because her grandmother used to explain their absence by saying they were “away at college.”
Longstreet said it’s not uncommon for people to have one or both parents in jail. It’s a difficult cycle to break.
“If you get taught this way of life, it’s all you know,” he said. “It’s been the same in some families for four or five generations; it’s like a circle. Most people get felonies when they’re younger, and when they get older and wiser, it’s too late.”
Tracy Siska, a criminologist and executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, said the way to lower homicides in Austin and elsewhere in the city is to focus on the underlying issues of education and jobs.
“The real long-term solution to preventing crime is dealing with social issues and poverty. Investing in neighborhoods, creating policy changes, creating jobs — they all cost money.”
Siska said the city’s elected officials often point to the police, citing a lack of officers as the reason for the city’s high homicide rate, because that’s what they want the public and media to focus on.
“Most policy makers won’t invest in the right policies because it would cost too much money,” Siska said. He said there’s no doubt that lowering Chicago’s poverty rate would significantly impact the homicide rate in Austin and other parts of the West and South sides that are most affected by violent crime.
Fixing the education system should be a priority, followed by creating jobs and job-training, Longstreet said. But he said there aren’t enough jobs in the neighborhood, and even if there were, there wouldn’t be enough qualified people to get those jobs because of the failing school system. All of Austin’s public high schools are currently on probation, according to CPS rankings.
Gambrell said, “If we don’t fix [Austin], it won’t get done.” She believes Chicago politicians don’t care about Austin, which leaves people like her and Longstreet to show the neighborhood’s youth a better way of life.
Back at Calvary Church in Oak Park, Russell is eager to join the basketball game that’s going on in the gym downstairs. As he speaks, he smiles, laughs and seems relaxed.
“This is my escape,” he said, looking out of the windows that look over tree-lined Lake Street. “Up here, it’s like a family for me,” Russell said. “They’re not giving up on us. I think that’s what we need, people who won’t give up on people and who won’t judge us too quick.”
Mathew Cunningham contributed to this story.
This story is part of an AustinTalks series about homicides on the West Side