Faith-based program aims to revive troubled neighborhood

Hundreds of people came to sing and pray Friday evening in a Washington Park lot that was once a haven for prostitution and drug dealers.

Brand New Beginnings, a faith-based, non-profit organization that provides assistance to homeless mothers on the South Side, organized the third annual Southern-style tent revival. The lot is adjacent to the Brand New Beginnings headquarters at 58th Street and Indiana Avenue.

The event featured speakers, gospel music and dance performed by members of the Crusaders Church, an evangelical church in Chicago. Designed to bring the community together, promote a discussion of problems and  and encourage positive change, the revival drew around 250 people, according to Brand New Beginnings founder Della Mitchell.

"We believe in the power of prayer and with putting faith in the word of God," said the Rev. Elbert Parker, pastor of Crusaders Church. "We believe in using faith to enact change."

"Fifty-eighth Street used to be filled with heroin," said Parker. "People were selling and stashing dope here." According to Parker, that's not the case any more. Prostitution has also declined in the area since Brand New Beginnings moved in, he said. 

According to Mitchell, Brand New Beginnings has worked closely with police to monitor and report suspected prostitution.  Residents say the system seems to be working.

Mitchell, who says she has been an activist since the age of seven, has been involved in public housing issues for many years. She was a lead organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless for 15 years. She has helped organize counseling services and women's empowerment programs - like 'dress to impress' workshops for homeless single mothers trying to enter the workforce. 

Brand New Beginnings emerged out of the work Mitchell was doing with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless 11 years ago.

"The women I was working with faced a lot of the same issues," said Mitchell. "They would say to me, 'We are homeless with all these abandoned buildings around us.'

"So I said, 'Sure, we'll sell candied apples and all that', not really thinking about how much money it would really cost" to buy an abandoned building. 

Through fundraisers  - including candied apple sales - Brand New Beginnings was able to raise the $350 needed to purchase the 32-unit building at 113 E. 58th St. from the city's abandoned properties program in 2001.

But they needed $2.7 million to make the building habitable. 

By applying for funds and working with the Illinois Housing Department Authority, the federal Community Development Block Grant program, and private investors in Chicago, the  organization had the building ready later that year. They received 500 calls in two days, Parker said.

In November, the organization will make another 24 units available in a second building across the street, purchased in 2007 for $3.9 million.

The new building will house recovering substance abusers enrolled in rehabilitation programs.

Residents of the mostly three-bedroom units must be eligible for public housing assistance. 

The program also provides counseling, vocational training, transportation to clinics, and abuse intervention.

"[We] want the young women to stop selling their bodies. We want the young men to stop selling dope…we're teaching them how to invest. But not giving them false hope," said Mitchell. "It will be hard work and take a while."

Mitchell says the effort is different from other outreach organizations. "The main ingredient of what we do is God and prayer," she said. You need faith behind any effort, she said. That's why they chose to rally the community with a tent revival.

"We teach prayer and faith," said Mitchell, "but we can't force religion." Spiritual advisors from the Crusaders Church are available for anyone who wants their guidance.

Mitchell would like to see 100 more units of affordable housing in the area, as well as businesses and services like grocery stores and a library.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy," she said. "But with my hand in God's hand, I can't fail."

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Mitchell was a lead organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. An earlier version mentioned a different organization.