Johnny Washington walked out of his program graduation, certificate in hand, saying he felt relieved and proud. After more than 20 years of heroin abuse and numerous stints in Cook County Jail, he was now regularly engaged in therapy, finally clean and sober, had secured a part-time job and was on the cusp of having his most recent charges dismissed.
He had done everything right, and he was hopeful for the future, but one thing was weighing on his mind. While he had secured a spot at a transitional living facility for the time being, his time there was soon coming to an end. He worried about where he would land after leaving — and whether he would be able to afford it.
Washington’s story is all too familiar for those of us tuned in to the barriers facing the re-entry community. The numbers speak for themselves. According to a recent report published by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to research in this vein, the formally incarcerated are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness.
We also know that individuals are at the greatest risk of homelessness in the first few months after leaving prison — nationally, nearly 50,000 people enter the shelter system directly upon release. In our own experience with the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Rehabilitation Alternative Probation program, a problem-solving court that supervises and assists nonviolent defendants with substance abuse, recovery and readjustment to the community, almost 50% of participants enter the program without a permanent housing option. Washington was among that 50%.
Without a stable, affordable and supportive place to call home, every aspect of a person’s life becomes problematic. Imagine trying to apply for a job without a permanent address, going to school without knowing where you will take a shower in the morning, or waking up on time for therapy without an alarm clock. All too often, we have seen people like Washington attempt to reintegrate without a place to land. This leads to more of the same: relapse, more illegal activity and, eventually, another incarceration.
In Cook County, we are attempting to address this gap. This year, the Housing Authority of Cook County and the Circuit Court’s RAP program have launched a new pilot. A number of Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8) have been allocated to successful RAP participants and graduates who are entrenched in recovery but still experiencing the collateral consequences of addiction including housing instability.
For Washington, this has meant an end to the worries he harbored as he left graduation that day. The first to receive a voucher under the new program, he has now secured an affordable apartment in the west suburbs — just a 15-minute drive from work. He says that having a place of his own has allowed him to reconnect with his family. They no longer see him as a drug addict looking for a place to crash or a handout, but as a father and brother looking to make amends.
While we are proud of Johnny Washington and his efforts to make a better life for himself, the statistics surrounding affordable housing barriers point to a glaring gap that currently exists in our public policy regarding re-entry. If we are to expect the formerly incarcerated to successfully reintegrate, we must ensure that these individuals are set up with the resources necessary to achieve that goal. Access to affordable housing is the piece we are missing. Doing so will not only benefit the people we serve, but Cook County as a whole. Justice should not only be restorative, justice should also be progressive.
Richard J. Monocchio is executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County.
Charles P. Burns is a judge on the Circuit Court of Cook County.