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InDepth: 1968 Chicago riots left lasting healthcare impact on West Side

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Chicago's West Side, a community in need

National Guardsmen patrol the streets of Chicago on April 6, 1968, following the riots and violence that ensued after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Photo)

The image of Pulaski Road burning is seared into Steve Spiller's memory.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination ignited riots in Chicago's West Side on April 5, 1968, that left the neighborhood in ruin. Fifty years later, the scars from that conflagration are still visible.

Rioters were lobbing rocks and bricks through store windows, taking all they could hold—food, clothes, TVs. People were flipping cars and setting storefronts on fire. At least nine died during the uprising across Chicago and more than 300 were injured. About 260 businesses were destroyed.

“After the riots, the West Side never fully recovered, and I don't know if it will,” Spiller said during a community meeting convened by Rush University Medical Center, which is located on the West Side. Spiller lives in the community and is the pastor of a nearby church.

The statistics are grim. Unemployment on the West Side of Chicago is around 22% compared with about 12% in the Loop, according to West Side United, a coalition of health systems, public institutions, residents and community groups formed in 2017. More than half of third-graders on the West Side fall below the expected reading level. About 4,250 adults on the West Side show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. West Garfield Park, one of the communities on the West Side, has an infant mortality rate that is double that of the city of Chicago as a whole. There's a 16-year difference in life expectancy between residents who live in West Garfield Park and those in the Loop, which encompasses the greater downtown area.

“Businesses are afraid to invest in the community,” Spiller said.

Nonetheless, West Side United is trying to spark a recovery through job training, local hiring and housing development, along with expanding mental health services and increasing access to healthy food.

The coalition plans to implement an internship program that will help up to 1,000 local high school students learn about health information technology, finance, administration and other healthcare sectors. It is doling out $2.5 million into West Side efforts related to housing and job development. It's starting a small-business accelerator grant pool 
with $100,000.

Funding is coming from a combination of hospitals and a $1 million grant from an anonymous donor.

The group also pledged to hire more West Side residents and purchase more goods and services from area businesses.

The University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, also on the West Side, has a housing program that places chronically homeless emergency department patients into permanent housing.

Ten Chicago-area hospitals also participate in the Chicago Heal Initiative, which was convened by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to tackle gun violence. The hospitals deliver counseling and behavioral health services and support affordable housing pilot programs. The group shares data to coordinate services, establishes community case management programs for victims of violence and trains employees to be aware of their implicit bias and become more culturally sensitive.

Nationally, only 11% of hospitals offered violence prevention programs for their communities, according to the American Hospital Association's 2016 annual survey.

Addressing these needs are critical, said Darlene Hightower, associate vice president of the office of community engagement at Rush. That's why members of West Side United will stay engaged, she said.

“We can tell you about the investments we've made in local business, the local people we've hired; but we still have to continue to build relationships,” Hightower said.



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