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Struggling to survive at Clara’s Place shelter

Updated: November 21, 2013 6:44AM

Something was visibly wrong at Clara’s Place, where dozens of poor women and their children live to avoid homelessness, during a visit last week to the West Englewood shelter.

Clara Kirk, the founder who also runs nearby Clara’s House, a shelter for battered women and children, looked preoccupied as she spoke to two volunteers about their latest setback.

The gas company had turned off gas at the property next door, also owned by Kirk’s charity, West Englewood United Organization. That left residents of Clara’s Place without heat or hot water.

Kirk owes the gas company $21,026.74.

Funds are so scarce, Kirk says, that she stopped paying that bill a while back to make payments on utilities for Clara’s Place and Clara’s House. But the gas line on the empty building also runs through Clara’s Place, she found out when the gas was shut off.

In recent years, her charity also has struggled with liens from the city and IRS, raising the possibility that her shelters would close.

Kirk won’t hear of it.

“I can’t be in danger of closing,” she says.

Where would her residents go, she asks.

“What would they do? The Bible says the poor will be with you always. The Lord will not let it close down when babies have nowhere to go.”

Kirk’s charity is surviving, just barely, on prayers and the good will of volunteers.

In better times, politicians embraced her, which led to exposure and generous funding. In 1996 she received a Jefferson Award, established in 1972 as Nobel Prize-like recognition for community and public service. Two years later, President Clinton honored her at the White House.

The shelter opened in 1987 in a building donated by Catholic Charities. In those days, Kirk had no trouble reaching Mayor Harold Washington on the telephone. Later, Mayor Richard M. Daley became an ally. His staff knew Kirk by name and helped her with grant applications.

Eventually the spotlight faded, but Kirk, 72, kept up her work in a neighborhood known for violence and despair. Unfortunately, she couldn’t keep up with her bills.

There were code violations on Clara’s Place and another property, on South Seeley Avenue, deeded to her by the city under Mayor Daley, that was never renovated.

When Daley left office, Kirk’s connections vanished. Under Daley, the city had declined to collect fines for code violations because of familiarity with Kirk’s work and her financial constraints, her legal adviser Shawn Warner says.

A new administration didn’t have that perspective. Warner says he brought staffers in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration up to speed on Kirk’s service history, which helped bring fines of more than $41,000 down to $1,000.

She also had trouble with the usually unforgiving IRS a few years ago, facing penalties of hundreds of thousands for falling behind on payroll taxes. An accountant volunteered to negotiate a still steep but more manageable penalty of $258,000.

“She has been so strapped,” Warner says. She must decide, “Am I going to pay taxes or feed the people? She hasn’t had enough money to do both.”

Payroll taxes are a thing of the past. There is no money to pay anyone, Kirk says. She relies on volunteers.

A week ago Kirk sat down with 15th Ward Democratic Committeeman Raymond Lopez to write a letter to Emanuel, asking him for some face time. She wants to regain her footing with the city to again bring in government grant money.

Quickly, though, priorities shifted to a more pressing priority. Her residents didn’t have heat.


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