CHAMPAIGN - James "Ervin" Allen is 69, blind and crippled. He lives in a little, three-room rented bungalow on Garwood Street. It's a simple house with simple furniture, a well-worn brown couch and a kitchen chair with a broken leg leveled by a brick.
At his age and in his condition, he doesn't take to change easily. But there's a change coming next month he's happy to accommodate.
Allen is moving to a new house, the first house he has ever owned.
"I'm very proud of it. I'm in love with it," he said. "I've bought me some furniture. It's just like new. Now I need to go down to Sears and get me a coupla legs and a coupla eyes, and I'll be OK."
His new house is right around the corner and down the street on Roper and Bellefontaine, in the Bristol Place neighborhood that includes some of the worst conditions in Champaign-Urbana.
That's why the Metanoia Center has de-cided to station itself here, on Clock Street, and why it de-cided to pool the resources available to it and build a new house on an empty lot for Allen.
Metanoia Center is a faith-based organization that established itself in Bristol Place two years ago, mainly because that's where its backers saw the greatest needs, and the needs have only grown more acute, they say.
One of those backers is the Rev. Eugene Barnes, who along with the Central Illinois Organizing Project, has been instrumental in persuading large banking interests such as National City, Bank One and Union Planters to begin reinvesting in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods under the provisions of the Community Reinvestment Act.
For Barnes and Metanoia, the effort is larger than getting decent owner-occupied housing built in a neglected neighborhood.
"This is an area no one seemed to want to be involved in," Barnes said. "There's open drug dealing, prostitution, gambling, threatening behavior. You see the older residents come out in the morning, but by afternoon, everybody's back in, and that's where they stay. It's tantamount to terrorism by default."
A mini-social services center, Metanoia offers after-school help to children and locates rides, meals and health care for the needy in the neighborhood.
The center has conducted neighborhood walks at night, joined forces with the Apostolic Faith Church on Bellefontaine Street, organized cleanup days and lobbied city hall to change the one-way streets they say act as a maze that contributes to a sense of enclosure.
They aren't very happy with the lack of response they say they've received from the city.
For a clean-up day last July, Metanoia went to its own expense to rent a Dumpster, though the city provides them in other neighborhood clean-ups.
Metanoia delivered signatures of 96 people who wanted one-way streets changed back to two-way, but the proposal was rejected.
City officials applaud the work of the Metanoia Center, and while they haven't gotten together on a couple of projects, there is support, said Neighborhood Services Director Dorothy David.
The city provided three lots to the center to build homes on in the neighborhood, plus $84,040 in federal Community Development funds for down payments. Allen is the first person to qualify, and his is the first house built, with two more to follow. Meta-noia is in the process of trying to pre-qualify several people for the other homes now.
National City is providing the financing.
David said the city continues to work with the center to get Bristol Place registered as a neighborhood organization, which would allow it small grant funding from the city and city sponsorship in such things as cleanup events. To become a registered neighborhood organization, the city requires that at least 50 percent of the signatures on petitions be from residents.
Petitions circulated in the neighborhood drew 96 signatures, but David said most of those who signed did not live in the neighborhood.
"We put a high amount of emphasis on actual residents being part of this effort. The key for success is neighborhood participation," David said.
Conversion of the one-way streets back to two-way also is a battle that likely won't go the way Metanoia wants, at least in the near future.
The streets were converted to one-way in early 1998, partly as a way to make the neighborhood less accessible for quick drug transactions. Police were recording drug sales every two to three minutes. Two-way streets made it easier for buyers and sellers to get in and out, and harder for police to detain suspects and investigate street-level transactions, according to the police department.
In late 1998, the city demolished the so-called Green Apartments, a primary site for criminal activity.
The demolition and the one-way traffic pattern contributed to a significant drop in calls for service, according to police statistics.
In 1997, there were 749 calls for service in the neighborhood, including 100 felonies and 148 misdemeanors; in 1998, after changes in the traffic pattern, police responded to 347 calls for services, including 42 felonies and 95 misdemeanors. In 2002, police responded to 746 calls, with 44 felonies and 84 misdemeanors.
"Given the current condition of the neighborhood, staff fears that a return to the old traffic pattern could increase street-level drug sales and again restrict the police department's ability to monitor criminal activities," according to a Jan. 31 memo from Police Chief Jim Luecking.
Despite the disagreements, David said the city is pleased with what Metanoia is attempting to accomplish.
"They represent a tremendous positive," David said.
Barnes said that while the city can be a force for good and has been, the impetus for change must come from within.
"It's not a city hall problem. It's everybody's problem," Barnes said. "There's an apathy here born of neglect. And once apathy sets in, residents become inured to the notion things might change.
"When you see moms running to pick up their kids from the bus in the middle of the day, you know things are not right. We will make it right."
The Bristol Place neighborhood is bordered by Market Street, Roper Street, Chestnut Street and the Illinois Central tracks, and Bradley Avenue. There are 77 homes within that area; 71 are occupied. Twenty-six are owner-occupied, and the rest are rentals, according to the Neighborhood Services Department.
In the most recent city solicitation for people to apply for home improvement grants, only two people from that neighborhood responded, David said. One didn't qualify because the needs of the house exceeded the $25,000 spending limit. Another application is in the process.
Patricia Martin, a resident and organizer of the center, said she has found that people don't respond, are mistrustful or don't know how to respond without spending time and face-to-face contact with them.
Martin has done much of the legwork in establishing contact with neighbors, running after-school programs and acting as an intermediary between residents and social services.
"I had to first convince them I wasn't trying to get anything out of them," she said.
Besides the houses, success has come in getting five women off the street and into drug treatment, in signing up 26 children for after-school programs and in getting 28 houses signed up for a beautification contest.
"We're trying to get the kids to help with painting, picking up trash, fixing gates, mowing, planting flowers, little things that make a big difference," she said.
One of Metanoia's biggest allies has been Roger Huddleston, owner of Roger Huddleston Manufactured Homes, and the Mahomet man who may be best known for his advocacy for Chief Illiniwek.
He is also a successful businessman whom Barnes credits with providing financial advice, money and spiritual support for the Metanoia endeavor.
Huddleston, in turn, calls Barnes "the practical radical."
"We meet a lot of people who are do-gooders interested in building up mainly themselves or their agencies. Not Rev. Barnes," Huddleston said. - "He doesn't have an office in Huntington Towers. He's right there in the neighborhood, and he recognizes that change doesn't come from bricks and mortar but from building up the people. Everything he does is about the client, the neighborhood, never about himself. And that's what drew me to him."
Group partners with banks to aid low-income area
CHAMPAIGN - The Metanoia Center, at 1313 N. Clock St., is a faith-based initiative that began in Champaign two years ago.
It is part of the Bloomington-based Central Illinois Organizing Project, a network of 26 faith-based organizations, churches and labor groups from Danville, Bloomington, Decatur, Springfield and Peoria.
Participation in the public interest watchdog group has played a critical part in allowing Metanoia to put its ideas into practice.
Don Carlson, executive director for the Central Illinois Organizing Project, said the organization's evaluations of lending data from federal regulators and the force of the Community Reinvestment Act have led to a slow but steady recognition of the needs in overlooked segments of nearby cities.
As a result of the project's work, National City Bank and Union Planters Bank have made new commitments to working and lending in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in the central Illinois cities. The organizing project also supported the federal government's lawsuit against City Financial and its subsidiaries for predatory lending practices that resulted in a $250 million settlement that will be paid out to borrowers throughout the country.
The project's longest relationship is with National City, formerly First of America. When negotiations first began with First of America more than five years ago, Carlson said that bank's loans to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods were in the range of 12 percent to 15 percent of total loans made.
An agreement was negotiated with National City to bring that percentage up to 30 percent. In recent years, it has been more like 50 percent, Carlson said.
National City has also formed the National City Community Development Corp. geared to service in lower-income neighborhoods. A member of that corporate board is the Rev. Robert Freeman, who is also president of the Central Illinois Organizing Project board and the pastor of First United Methodist of Rantoul. One result of that is the establishment of a branch bank on Springfield's east side.
National City has also made more than a half-million dollars in charitable contributions to grass-roots organizations, including Metanoia. National City is providing the financing for the three houses in Bristol Place.
National City and Union Planters have joined the Fannie Mae Anti-Predatory Lending Pilot Project, a federally chartered initiative that assists the project with a pool of capital that can be drawn down on to refinance high-interest predatory loans.
The organizing project, in probably its best-publicized undertaking and as a result of negotiations that lasted 11 months, recently won a memo of understanding from Union Planters Bank to commit $10 million per year in loans to central Illinois poorer neighborhoods, plus the hiring of a loan specialist whose primary duty is to generate applicants from those neighborhoods. A range of other commitments, checks and balances also was negotiated.
"Collectively, we're able to influence these institutions. Union Planters might be able to ignore Metanoia, but not an organization that can put 100 people in their lobby in Decatur," which is their Illinois headquarters, Carlson said.
"The real change, though, is bringing increased awareness to the banks that there are whole segments of these communities that need decent homes and that there are many nontraditional borrowers who are just as good homeowners as stereotypical middle and upper-class homeowners."
Participating with Carlson and Barnes in the Union Planters negotiations were the Rev. Claude Shelby of Salem Baptist Church and the Rev. Charles Jackson of Bethel AME Church, both in Champaign, and Freeman.
Tom Woodbery, spokesman for Memphis-based Union Planters, said in a recent interview, "We're sensitive to what they're sensitive to, which is being good corporate citizens and making lending decisions regardless of race or income. I think we have mutual interests. We're not looking at this as a confrontational situation."
Carlson said the process has been lengthy and requires extensive analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data, trips to Washington, D.C., collaboration with federal regulators and negotiations with banks. But it has been worth it, he said.
"There's money that's getting out there on the street now," Carlson said. "The success you see with Mr. Allen is just the beginning.
Phil Bloomer is a . He can be reached at 351-5371 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.