Chicago Tribune: Advocates push for improving ex-offenders’ access to CHA housing

Activists to present pilot project to mayor that would use intense screening process to help convicted offenders find place to live more quickly

Over the past year and a half, housing and social service advocates in Chicago have worked quietly to tackle a controversial issue — easing CHA’s long-standing restrictions on residents with criminal records.

They formed a committee, drafted a pilot program and found a sympathetic ear at the very top of the Chicago Housing Authority — Charles Woodyard, who just last month committed to keep meeting with them about the idea.

“As CHA’s chief executive officer, I want to stress my commitment to continue collaborating in the design and implementation of a successful pilot program for ex-offenders,” Woodyard wrote in a letter to the advocates the Tribune obtained.

Woodyard’s sudden resignation this week has left advocates worried that they have lost a key partner in their bid for a policy change they say is critical to helping ex-offenders break from their criminal past.

“It’s vital. It’s extremely vital,” said Charles Austin, 46, who has been convicted twice and is now an advocate with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless on this issue. “You go into the County Jail, you come out and they say, ‘Don’t reoffend. And rebuild your life.’ But you can’t rebuild your life without the foundation of a stable place to live.”

For years, people with criminal records in Chicago have faced restrictions in seeking housing assistance with the CHA. Generally, people must wait five years after leaving prison to be admitted by the CHA. Agency officials, in emails this week, said they weigh various factors when considering an application and also allow for appeals.

But advocates say more access is needed. They point to statistics that highlight the need for housing options for ex-offenders; 48 percent of the people using Chicago’s homeless shelter system are convicted felons, according to a 2011 study by Loyola University researchers. And they said a five-year ban is problematic because the first few years are when ex-convicts are more likely to reoffend.

The restrictions were put in place to protect law-abiding residents, and some advocates concede that they made sense years ago when gangs were entrenched in larger CHA developments. But they argue that the CHA’s redevelopment to scattered housing has reduced the need for such tight restrictions.

They emphasize that the pilot project, as proposed, would include an intense screening process and is intended only for offenders committed to change. It is also small, targeting 50 households in two years.

Rachel Ramirez, a community organizer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said advocates first met with Woodyard in May 2012, and he said he was open to hearing more about the problem.

“It was a little bit surprising to us,” Ramirez said, adding that advocates had tried but failed with previous CHA administrations. “What we started to think is, this is a different type of leader.”

CHA officials confirmed the meetings with Woodyard and, in a written statement, said the agency “is committed to an ongoing conversation” about the pilot program. Woodyard did not return phone calls this week.

Advocates now intend to press their case directly with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who on Wednesday named Michael Merchant, the city’s buildings commissioner, as the new CEO for the CHA. Merchant was unavailable for comment.

Under the advocates’ proposal, the screening would be done by three long-standing Chicago social service agencies that specialize in helping convicted felons transition back to society, Ramirez said.

A key component of the pilot project is that offenders would have a chance to move in with family members who receive CHA assistance, again after a screening process, she said.

Photo by CCH: On Oct. 17, a Re-entry Project delegation delivers a letter to Mayor Emanuel's office to request a meeting about a CHA pilot
(Photo by CCH) On Oct. 17, the Re-entry Project delivers a letter to Chicago Mayor Emanuel’s office to request a meeting about the proposed CHA pilot.