Austin nonprofit looking to go into housing

Westside Health Authority was granted a special use permit for a transitional housing facility it plans to open

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The Westside Housing Authority moved a step closer to offering transitional housing services for ex-offenders at a facility it owns in Austin at 5422 W. Division St. The Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals voted on Aug. 18 to approve a special use permit that allows the nonprofit to operate a residential component at the facility, where the nonprofit had already been providing a number of support services for ex-offenders. 

Services for ex-offenders who are re-entering society are a major part of WHA's work. According to its website, the organization helps them find jobs by providing job training, offering GED preparation courses and assisting them with job placement. 

WHA also offers anger management and conflict resolution courses, provides health screenings, sets up voicemail boxes for ex-offenders to use, hands out kits with hygiene products and offers emergency food and clothing. But up to this point, it had not offered any help with housing beyond providing referrals to other non-profits. 

Ald. Emma Mitts (38th), whose ward includes both WHA headquarters and the 5422 W. Division Street building, said that the services for ex-offenders are more important in Austin than ever.

"Today, the Austin neighborhood has a reported 21 percent rate of unemployment and, unfortunately, a large population of parolees with criminal records," she said.  

According to Quiwana Bell, WHA's Chief Operating Officer, the transitional housing will serve as a residential component of a pilot project designed to expand services for returning citizens. The program will be able to accommodate up to six ex-offenders who don't have any home to return to. In order to take part in the project, they had to be low-level offenders who have been pre-screened by the Sheridan Correctional Center in Sheridan, Illinois.

Once they move in, the ex-offenders will receive on-site services similar to what WHA already offers. 

"With over 10 years of experience in providing re-entry services, WHA understands the unique needs and proper supports required to successfully reintegrate back into society," Bell said.

Bell said that WHA's ultimate goal is to set their clients on the path toward leading meaningful and successful lives. 

While applications aren't legally required to have the local alderman's approval, it is usually sought as a matter of precedent. Mitts said that WHA has her full support. 

"I have long worked with local partners such as the West Side Health Authority to highlight awareness of the tremendous need to provide housing and jobs for returning, formerly incarcerated citizens," she said. "And as long as they prove successful in the community, they'll have my support."

The alderman said that helping ex-offenders return to stable, productive lives is good for everyone.

"This pilot initiative can serve as an important resource, and equally significant, help remove barriers from the paths of these citizens trying to recover from past mistakes as they seek to establish more stable, productive lives," she said. 

"Many everyday Chicago residents may not recognize that the arrest and incarceration records of young adults who've previously made mistakes can provide a major negative impact to their future growth and development. They can also create significant obstacles to some simple basics many of us take for granted, such as finding housing and employment."

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com 

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