On May 3, almost 300 community residents crowded the lower auditorium of Trinity Baptist Church to discuss their concerns about the thousands of people expected to return to the Austin community next year from jail. Austin has one of the largest populations of people in prison?”nearly 4,000 individuals are released back into its neighborhoods from the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) each year.

Over the past few weeks, stories of ex-offenders returning to, and residing in, Chicago’s communities have made front page news. Ex-offender reentry has become a hot-button issue, particularly for the communities that will receive the bulk of the 33,000 individuals released from IDOC this year. Yet scant attention has been given to the Austin community’s concerns about ex-offender reentry, as well as proposed plans to address the needs of this population.

Convened by the Westside Health Authority (WHA) and Alderman Isaac Carothers (29th Ward), Tuesday’s meeting was a positive step toward hearing the community’s voice and WHA’s proposed plan to provide transitional housing, employment and supportive services for ex-offenders returning to Austin. The organization also plans to help churches and groups develop small housing units dispersed throughout the community which will house no more than 12-16 formerly incarcerated persons. The church programs would also provide structured programs, including employment, spiritual and social support, and drug-testing. Alderman Carothers and the Community Support Advisory Council (CSAC), a WHA prison reentry initiative organized by the governor in 2004, want more community involvement in the process of ex-offender reintegration.

Alderman Carothers’ concern also focused on illegal housing which is cropping up in the 29th Ward, and he stressed the need for zoning before any project can begin. He supports the development of 10 units of ex-offender housing by the Safer Foundation that will be located at 165 N. Central.

Jacqueline Reed, WHA’s executive director, stressed the need for a program to safeguard the community, rather than inmates being released without community monitoring and support.

“These men need structure?”something to do with their time,” Reed said. “They have been locked up and have had someone tell them when to eat, sleep and go to work. When they’re released, they need to keep these patterns and any housing program should provide both structure and job opportunities.” WHA has begun rehabbing a building on Division Street and three men from the Sheridan Correctional Facility have been hired with the hope that other men from Sheridan will be able to live in the building. The building will house individuals who were charged with drug-related offenses only?”no violent offenses or sex offenders.

The meeting provided a forum for a broad range of community residents?”including many ex-offenders?”to voice their support as well as ask questions about the proposed plan. One resident at the meeting, Mrs. Ella Eastland, shared her concerns that “the community already has problems with crime and litter. Why bring more problems? I don’t want people with a background in this community. But since they’re coming, they should be with their families.” Her views were reflected by others who expressed concern about property values, and fear of Austin becoming a dumping ground for ex-prisoners. Alderman Carothers assured the crowd that Austin’s property values would not be affected by this type of housing. “This community’s property values are rising, and will continue to rise, at a steady rate,” the alderman stated.

Still others were supportive of the idea of small, structured housing for the prisoners re-entering Austin. One resident, who has lived in Austin for 28 years, stated that she supported the plan for ex-offender housing because it is small and manageable. “These people are coming back, and I don’t want to see them fall back into the same thing,” she said.

Although consensus was formed around the need for such a program, its location was disputable. The alderman told the group that future meetings would be held to continue the decision process. A public hearing on ex-offender reentry is scheduled for 11 a.m., Saturday, June 11, at First Congregational Church, 1613 W. Washington Blvd. For more information on the ex-offender program and future meetings, please contact James Coleman, CSAC Outreach Facilitator at 773/378-1878.