Job-seekers fill out paperwork at the Garfield Workforce Center. Despite serving communities that have some of the nation's highest rates of long-term unemployment among young people in the country, the center has worked with a comparatively low number of people. Photo by Joe Gallo.

The door to the Garfield Workforce Center opened promptly at 9 a.m. on a rainy spring morning.

The job seekers who had formed a line outside the office walked past a purple flier advertising jobs working for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Inside, a small black circular table displayed yellow laminated copies of a “success story” in which a homeless man suffering from severe anxiety disorder secured a job at a Sheraton Hotel. After joining the union, he made $10.47 per hour and an annual average salary of $21,778 while maintaining his mental health. Having rented and furnished an apartment, he was “proud to have a telephone in his own name.”

About half a dozen job-seekers at the nearby computers sought to replicate the man’s success. If past results are any indicator, however, that goal is going to be a hard one to reach.

The Garfield Workforce Center is one of five workforce facilities located throughout the city. From 2006 to 2009, 2,660 people from the center were served through funding from the Workforce Investment Act, a framework and major source of funding for the nation’s workforce development system. That figure is the second lowest of the city’s five centers and 41 percent lower than the 3,745 people served through the Southwest Workforce Center, located at 7500 S. Pulaski Road in the city’s West Lawn neighborhood.

The lower numbers are not due to a lack of unemployed people.

In 2008, 52 percent of people ages 16 to 30 in East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale and West Garfield Park had not worked during the previous five years or longer. By contrast, the Southwest Workforce Center is located in a group of neighborhoods that includes Chicago Lawn, Clearing, Gage Park, Garfield Ridge and West Elsdon. In 2008, 34 percent of these communities’ people ages 16 to 30 had not worked during the previous five years or longer.

Leigh Diffay, the Garfield center’s regional director, attributed the service disparity to the fact that the center tends to attract many people who are difficult to place. A lot of the job-seekers have criminal backgrounds, are homeless, are grappling with mental illness, are single parents or some combination, he said.

“There is a disconnect between the workforce jobs that are available and the skill sets customers have,” he said. “Those workers that have marketable skill sets are not coming to the Garfield Work Center.

“All of the centers serve people who have similar needs, but the Garfield Center serves a higher percentage of people who are homeless or ex-offenders,” Diffay said.

Diffay said his conclusions were based on anecdotal impressions and the city’s funding a program specifically for ex-offenders in 2007 through 2009.

Diffay explained that the city distributed brochures to let residents know about the five centers and their available services but did not provide any other resources to publicize the activities of the center.

“It seems unseemly that people don’t know about something the city spends so much money on,” Diffay said, adding that workers at the center have distributed fliers and visited community-based organizations, churches and homeless shelters to get the word out. “We’ve gone out and promoted the services we provide, primarily by word of mouth.”

Anne Sheahan, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, said her agency did not have any information on how much it spent on publicity.

Whatever the expenditures are, the word has not appeared to circulate in some West Side communities, according to Derek Brown, a former high-ranking Vice Lords member who has started a boxing program at Penn Elementary School to help North Lawndale’s children. Brown said he knows dozens of chronically unemployed men in the neighborhood, but few of them have heard about the 10 S. Kedzie Ave. office.

For his part, the Rev. Robin Hood called the citation of clients’ skills and insufficient funding for publicity a copout. “They’re getting funding and not getting the message out,” said Hood, pastor of Redeemed Outreach Ministries and an activist on the city’s South and West Sides.

Diffay added that the center started orientation sessions in May for people seeking to gain employment through the Put Illinois to Work Program. The line of people who learned about the program through word of mouth and fliers was four deep and stretched “out the front door, all the way to Madison, around Madison and proceeded west on Madison. Every Monday, for the last three weeks, we’ve run orientations for that program and had an average of 300 to 350 people,” he said. “The word is getting out about that particular opportunity.”

Aviva Brill Robles, the Garfield center’s manager, exudes a sense of mission in her work. One of the biggest obstacles to successful job placement is “generational unemployment,” said Robles, a petite woman with bright eyes and flecks of grey in her black hair. By that, she meant that many young people in the community grew up with little commerce in the area and without seeing their parents work. As a result, she said, they developed “less of a culture of work.”

According to a Chicago Reporter analysis of 2008 census data on employment, the group of neighborhoods that included East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale and West Garfield Park had 30,317 jobs for its 137,350 residents–”or about 220 jobs per 1,000 residents.

This figure was 17 times lower than the 3,720 jobs per 1,000 residents in the group of communities that included the Loop. But it was slightly higher than the 180 jobs per 1,000 residents of the Chicago Lawn, Clearing, Gage Park, Garfield Ridge and West Elsdon area.

But Hal Baskin, executive director of P.E.A.C.E., a group that works to provide a safe space for youth in the Englewood neighborhood, flatly dismissed Robles’ explanation as an excuse. “If you don’t have a place to go to work, how are you going to develop the culture?” asked Baskin, who does real estate management and in 2006 worked with elected officials to bring hundreds of jobs to the community. “There’s a fallacy in the whole premise.”

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....