The courtyard at the Roosevelt Homes public housing complex on North 44th Street is filled with the sounds of children playing, the thump of a basketball on the court, neighbors laughing and talking.
Sometimes those everyday sounds are overtaken by the sounds that come at night: a pounding at the door. Gunshots. Screams. A child’s whispered prayer asking for it all to stop.
“I would ask for God to stop the shooting,” one little girl wrote in a children’s newsletter for an after-school program in the city.
This is part of living in the most dangerous areas of East St. Louis, which statistically has the highest murder rate in the country.
The Belleville News-Democrat reviewed 19 years of data related to homicides in East St. Louis. The research found that out of 453 murders from 2000 to 2018, there were 82 in or within a block of one of the city’s public housing complexes.
There were 46 men killed in the housing projects and eight women. More than half of the women killed in public housing were involved in domestic disputes around the time of their deaths.
The East St. Louis Housing Authority has its own security force of 12 officers plus Police Chief Cortez Slack, but they can only charge someone with trespassing or disturbing the peace.
There are new security cameras installed at the John DeShields Homes, on McCasland Avenue, but no one actively monitors them, and no police agency has ever asked for surveillance video. They don’t cover the John Robinson Homes across the street.
“The two housing projects right here (John DeShields and John Robinson) are the deepest concentration of shots fired, as well as homicides involving guns. These places are the epicenter of much of the violence,” said former St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, who now heads the Illinois State Police.
John DeShields Homes has the most murders. A review of the records showed there were 17 murders at John DeShields; 11 at Orr Weathers Homes; 14 at Roosevelt Homes; nine at Gompers Homes, four at John Robinson, two at Norman Owens, and one at Landsdowne Towers during the 19-year span.
Dana Franklin lives with her 6-year-old son, Cameron, at the Roosevelt Homes. Gunfire is a nightly event. Franklin put a dresser in front of the windows, hoping, she said, it would halt a stray bullet. It didn’t work. A bullet ripped through the wall of her son’s room, nearly striking him in the head.
Another night she awoke to a banging on the door and spotted Cameron walking towards it. It was a natural response — opening the door after a knock. But Franklin grabbed the boy, fearing what may be on the other side. A home invader? A rapist? A murderer? No answering the door after dark, she said. That’s the house rule now.
Franklin understands there’s no protection for her and her son from the violence. They don’t expect help to come from the police or housing authority security.
“They won’t come. Nobody cares. Nobody cares about us,” she said.
Guards have limited powers
In 2012, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin urged then-Mayor Alvin Parks to close the city’s bars and nightclubs at 1 a.m. to prevent violence. The city had 23 murders that year. Parks refused. The city needed the tax revenue the clubs and liquor sales provided, he said.
“I thought that was just terrible. I couldn’t convince the former mayor. He wanted to keep them going. I thought the situation was bringing in some bad players into this town in the middle of the night and we saw the results of it,” Durbin said.
Durbin threatened to pull federal money used to pay the salary of two full-time city police officers to patrol the housing authority if Parks did not comply.
In 2013, Parks doubled down and contemplated leaving the clubs open around the clock.
Finally, Durbin supported a measure that pulled the federal funding for the two city police officers and gave it to the housing authority.
A security force was created. It had a budget of $560,000 in 2017. The 12 officers receive an annual salary of between $34,000 and $42,000, and the chief public safety officer makes $58,000 a year. But none of these officers can arrest someone for a felony. They can only hold someone until the East St. Louis Police can get there.
Officially, these dozen housing authority police are auxiliary officers who get their commissions from the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department. They can write tickets for trespassing or disorderly conduct, said Chief Slack, but they don’t investigate any more serious misdemeanor or felony crimes.
“It would make sense for us to be certified officers,” Slack said.
A federal grant also paid to install 40 surveillance cameras at the most dangerous housing project, the John DeShields Homes. The cameras were paid for through a $258,000 federal grant secured by Durbin.
“Residents of East St. Louis suffer from one of the highest violent crime and homicide rates in the country. The people raising their families in this community deserve better. These security cameras will help increase safety by giving law enforcement agencies and a new security coordinator access to areas they were previously unable to monitor. I hope that we can build on this to improve security beyond the federal housing,” Durbin said at the time.
In response to written questions submitted to the Housing Authority, spokeswoman Jade Harris wrote, “There are monitors in the server room and manager’s office at the John DeShields and the server room and Chief Slack’s office at the central office. No one is assigned to watch any of the monitors.”
There have been nine murders at the John DeShields Homes since the cameras were installed, just two have been solved.
One afternoon, a woman was standing outside her home surveying her car that had been riddled by bullets. A maintenance man came along and asked whether anyone was hurt. “No,” she said, “not this time.”
When a reporter asked the woman about the cameras, she looked upwards.
“What? Them? They don’t work,” she said.
Moesha January was a 20-year-old single mother of two when she was gunned down at the Roosevelt Homes on Sept. 17, 2017. There are no cameras there. Her case remains unsolved. She was the second woman in a month to be murdered in the city’s public housing.
Just days after January’s murder, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson declared the federal government’s mission was accomplished and returned control of the projects to the local housing authority board.
The East St. Louis Housing Authority had been under federal control for more than 32 years. When the federal government released it, the 2,100 apartments where 6,000 residents lived were crumbling.
In 1985, President Reagan put the East St. Louis Housing Authority under federal control — the same year Sister Julia arrived in the city. It was the first time a housing authority was put into receivership by the federal government.
HUD hoped to root out corruption and improve the housing, which was in terrible shape.
When HUD took over, things got better for a while. Repairs were made to the apartments, some that dated to the 1940s.
But things began to falter.
HUD’s Inspector General gave the project failing marks. In a 2011 report, the Inspector General said the HUD failed to properly oversee the housing authority. HUD did not have make sure the local housing authority was operating properly, meeting its’ obligations, and it couldn’t say whether it could operate independently.
Six years later, with crumbling buildings and rising crime, the federal government decided to end its receivership of the East St. Louis Housing Authority. HUD returned control to the local agency — something city leaders had sought for decades.
Carson attended a ceremony at East St. Louis City Hall to commemorate the transfer and called it “a day of progress.”
Mayor Emeka Jackson Hicks, who pushed to end HUD’s receivership, introduced Carson, a former Republican presidential candidate, that day.
Jackson Hicks did not answer requests for an interview or respond to written questions for this story.
Not in attendance, Illinois senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, both Democrats. They both called the relinquishing of control a mistake.
“There are things we can do. In terms of housing for people, decent affordable housing for people, creating a climate for opportunities for jobs. Those things are critically important,” Durbin said.
The crumbling houses need a lot of attention. Years of neglect have taken their toll. Many of the windows are boarded up. Trash tumbles across the yards or piles against a fence. Parking lots are pitted with potholes.
It’s here where a child can wake in the morning and see a dead body laying outside their window — an example of the violence children see on their morning walk to the school bus.
With the indiscriminate shootings, mothers and grandmothers are left to tell children to hop into an empty bathtub when they hear gunshots or put them to bed on pallets in the living room so the bricks on the façade of the building can protect them from stray bullets while they sleep. More than once, a gunman strafed the courtyard of a housing complex while children were walking home from school, forcing them to run or drop on their bellies.
Others are taking a different tact. Last year, a woman sued the housing authority, claiming its gun ban is unconstitutional.
The woman, who filed the suit under the pseudonym N. Doe, alleged the housing authority threatened to terminate her lease unless she swears she doesn’t have a gun in the home.
The woman says she was raped and beaten by an intruder who broke into her apartment. The assault only ended after one of her children pulled out a gun and pointed it at the man.
The woman has a firearm owners’ identification card and is licensed to carry a weapon in Illinois. But her lease says residents and their guests are prohibited from having or displaying guns in the apartment or on housing property.
Violating that condition could result in the lease being terminated.
Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered the housing authority to amend their rules to allow tenants to own guns.
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Phil Gilbert wrote: “Among whatever else, the Second Amendment protects the right of a law-abiding individual to possess functional firearms in his or her home for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense and defense of family.”
‘Calcutta on the Mississippi’
Sister Julia Huiskamp been working in the East St. Louis Housing projects for 32 years. When she came there, she said drug dealers and guns were out in the open.
“It was terrible. So open. So vile,” she said.
Huiskamp, a former reporter at her hometown newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa, joined the Daughters of Charity religious order in 1959. On her first assignment, she watched from a Chicago rooftop as the city burned around the convent in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. She stayed there providing help to the poor in west Chicago.
Her religious order sent her to East St. Louis in 1985. She said she used to get up each morning, take a broom and dust pan and “sweep up the shell casings.” The city averaged 49 murders a year then, according to one study.
In the year after her arrival, Huiskamp started the Griffin Center, an afterschool program for kids who lived in the housing projects.
She knows most of the people who live there. They recognize her silver Toyota pickup truck. She is an 83-year-old white woman who isn’t quite 5 feet tall. She has a straight-talking, direct manner that has earned the trust of those who live here.
Huiskamp provides a haven for the most vulnerable children in the heart of the most dangerous places in the most dangerous city in the country. She provides snacks, homework help, a computer lab, summer camp, field trips and support for 300 children at five centers. The children attend the program for free.
She doesn’t receive any money from the state. The federal government provides food assistance for snacks and the summer good program. The rest of the funding comes from churches and private donors.
Huiskamp, who has a master’s degree in social work from St. Louis University, has learned to cope with the poverty and daily trauma of the violence in the projects. As a nun, she takes a yearly vow to help the poor.
One in three East St. Louis families have an annual income of $15,000 a year. In the city, 70 percent of children live below the poverty line. Huiskamp once called the city “Calcutta on the Mississippi,” referring to the city in India, one of the poorest in the world.
But guns are the biggest problem in the projects, she said.
“How does a 14-year-old kid get a gun? It’s absolutely insane that anyone that young would own a gun. You can get a gun anywhere. That’s really a government failure,” Huiskamp said.
Violence has touched all the children who come to the program. Most have lost a parent, a sibling or a friend. They know someone who has been shot. And with the grief, there is also fear — fear that they will be shot or someone in their family will be.
Huiskamp has heard the gunfire. She has seen the children running from the bullets. She comforts the mothers who have lost children.
Reva White, who lives in the Roosevelt Homes, lost two sons: Anthony Rice, her 15-year-old son, was shot in 1995. George Collins, her 34-year-old son, was shot and killed in 2009.
“East St. Louis. They really need to do something to calm it down. There really is too much going on. There’s just a lot of things that don’t make sense. When I see other kids coming up, I really sympathize with the parents,” White said.
Protecting the children
In 2016, the Erikson Institute selected the city to participate in a three-year study of kindergartners called the Early Development Instrument. Research has shown that trauma in the first five years can affect brain development.
As part of the study, teachers evaluated the children’s overall health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development and communication skills.
The study found that more than 44 percent of the children tested who lived in the area of the John DeShields and John Robinson Homes were below average in at least one of these areas. In the Roosevelt Homes, 36 percent of the children tested were considered below average. At Norman Owens, another housing project, 38 percent of children tested below average.
These children, who were interviewed in 2017, may struggle academically, emotionally and in their relationships with their peers, according to Erikson Institute Assistant Director Jaclyn Vasquez.
While HUD controlled East St. Louis’ housing projects, funding cuts and years of neglect affected the safety and health of children living in public housing, and EDI data reflected significant child development vulnerabilities in these areas.
Though guns are prohibited in public housing, gunfire can be heard daily. Children walk past sheet-covered bodies on their way to school. They hear gunfire at night.
“Trauma has a profound effect on children, not only in school, but in life outcomes,” Vasquez said. “There is a reason to shine a light on what is happening because it will impact not just these children, but this community for generations to come.”
Under a state law sponsored by Rep. LaToya Greenwood of East St. Louis, school children can now ride the bus, even if their school is only a couple blocks away.
Gloria Hicks, a member of Parents United for Change, told the BND a man was killed near Dunbar Elementary just after the school year started.
“The high-crime area, some of those places people got killed, kids got to walk through,” Hicks said. “The kids know this man got killed and they got to walk right up passed there to get to school.”
For most, moving out of public housing isn’t an option. Low-cost housing is hard to find. Family and friends live nearby.
But some have moved away after finding housing in St. Louis or other parts of St. Clair County. One mother who moved to St. Louis comes back to the Roosevelt Homes every year on her murdered son’s birthday to pass out cupcakes to children, said Reva White, the public housing resident who lost two sons.
While academics believe there’s a chance for change, Dana Franklin, the housing projects resident who barricaded her window to protect her son, is looking to move out of the Roosevelt Homes to a place where Cameron can play outside. The wait lists are long, Franklin said, so in the meantime, she watches Cameron closely.
He said he is afraid when he hears the gunfire. Cameron was nearly shot while sleeping in his bed at the Roosevelt Homes.
“I don’t wanna be dead. My momma would be really sad and mad if that happened,” he said.
The 7,800 children who live in East St. Louis make up about 29 percent of the population, according to the 2017 census.
A 6-year-old girl was featured in “Our World,” the newsletter produced by the children of the Griffin Center.
In a photograph that appears with her story, she has a big smile and a button that says “Best Day Ever!”
But her answers are telling. When the interviewer asks her, “What question would you ask God?” she replies, “Can you keep me safe?”
BND reporter Joseph Bustos contributed information to this story.