In 1995, 18-year-old Christopher Roach was desperate for cash. No stranger to auto theft, he decided to try an armed robbery; the first one brought in $1,700.

The easy money became addictive, but a few robberies later-he was arrested.

Roach spent the next nine years in prison, away from a newborn son he never met and dealing with extreme anger problems. When he was released in 2004 on his 27th birthday, Roach was without work experience or a high school diploma. His anger and frustration intensified. All paths seemed to point back to prison.

Luckily, Roach’s sister referred him to St. Leonard’s House on the West Side.

“I had to make a choice: either go back to the penitentiary because of conditions I couldn’t deal with or go to an alternative program,” Roach recalled. “I don’t know where I’d be without St. Leonard’s. Before I came here, I didn’t have help.”

St. Leonard’s House, near South Hoyne and West Madison, has been helping formerly-incarcerated men and women for more than 50 years, making it the oldest residential program of its kind in Chicago.

It opened in 1954, long before issues around ex-offenders, expungement and recidivism became fodder for politicians and news headlines.

“The numbers of individuals wanting and needing help upon their exit from prison has risen dramatically in the past 20 years,” said Executive Director Bob Dougherty. “We have tried to respond to that as best we could. When I came here 20 years ago, we were just one building.”

Now the program provides temporary housing for 40 men at St. Leonard’s and semi-permanent housing for another 40 men at St. Andrew’s Court. Clients are expected to participate in educational and skill-building classes, and in various counseling sessions between 7 in the morning and 7 p.m. Nothing, though, is mandatory.

“We’re not a halfway house,” said Chris Vaughn, a program director. “We’re a very structured program.”

Meeting a need

According to Vaughn, a former police and corrections officer, their program is an essential part of the community and makes up for what the criminal justice system has failed to do.

“What we do here, it’s not rocket science,” he said. “We’re here just basically helping people help themselves.”

Residents at St. Leonard’s are free to make their own decisions and are there voluntarily.

“A lot of halfway houses are just like penitentiaries, but not here,” said Roach. “We have a beautiful courtyard, which always relaxes me. There’s been times I’ve sat there and just dozed off to la-la land.”

James Jones, an Episcopalian priest, originally founded the house for men. Since then, Grace House, which currently serves 18 women, has opened, demonstrating how the program has evolved over the years.

“Father Jones had a simple vision for men coming out of Cook County jail: [provide] a place where they could catch their breath and find their destination,” said Vaughn.

In the ’50s, the average stay was two weeks. Now, it is about six months.

Roach, in just four months at St. Leonard’s, earned his diploma. He also received employment and housing assistance and-most important to him-got a new outlook on life. The facility’s anger management program also helped.

“I had a big problem with my attitude and self esteem,” Roach said. “I always felt like nobody couldn’t do nothing for me. But here, they taught me patience and tolerance.”

That patience helped Roach develop a relationship with his 8-year-old son, De’Onte, whom he saw for the first time when he was released from jail. Reminded of the family values lessons he learned at St. Leonard’s, Roach began to understand that some things take time.

“I wanted to try so hard to get back some of the time I lost,” he said.

Establishing a track record

Not all of St. Leonard’s participants are successful. Their recidivism rate is about 20 percent, which means that one out of every five clients will go back to prison.

For all formerly-incarcerated men and women in Illinois, the recidivism rate is about 54 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

St. Leonard’s estimates its operating costs to be about $19,000 per client. They estimate it costs at least $25,000 per inmate at a correctional facility.

Dougherty explained that his biggest challenge is generating the money to pay for their services, which are free to clients.

“We’re never too sure of where the budget is going to come from, but each year our services and number of individuals continue to grow. The hardest part of my job is making sure we keep the lights on, keep the heat on and are able to pay our staff,” he said.

One of the ways St. Leonard’s plans to expand, and simultaneously be more self-sufficient, is by opening a coffee shop across from the Mabel Manning Public Library on Madison Street. Above the shop, there will be second-stage housing for women leaving Grace House.

As for Roach, he’s no longer angry at the system. He also plans to grow with the program and take on more responsibilities.

“In the future, I’d like to be executive director,” he said. “I want to learn every level of the program.”