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CHA relaxes rigid restrictions on ex-offenders

Arguing that the doors to both housing and jobs must be opened to ex-offenders, Mayor Rahm Emanuel moved Friday to relax the Chicago Housing Authority’s rigid restrictions on residents with criminal records.

The change will start small, by allowing 50 former inmates to move back in with family members living at the CHA for what the mayor called “a year’s transition” provided they have “made the choice to work” and received “intense training and preparation” from re-entry programs like the Safer Foundation.

But Emanuel said if it works, he’s determined to permanently lift a rigid remnant of the days when CHA high-rises like Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor Homes were overrun with gangs terrorizing law-abiding residents.

“It’s not just the door of employment. It’s the door of housing that’s been closed, and we want to make sure that both of those doors are open so people when they make a choice . . . to lead a responsible life” have a place to live, the mayor said.

“The truth is — and we know this — there are more people than we have the resources [to help]. So, we’ve got to make every one of these count. My ultimate goal is that CHA, while we’re starting as a pilot, we prove it right, and it’s not a pilot a short time from now.”

Emanuel announced the CHA policy change–and touted his decision to more than double the number of ex-offenders served by city jobs, training and support programs–during a roundtable discussion with ex-offenders at St. Leonard’s Ministries, 2120 West Warren Boulevard.

The ex-offenders who poured their hearts out to the mayor told harrowing stories of abusing drugs, bouncing in and out of prison and, in some cases, from shelter to shelter.

But they all had chosen a different path after getting a helping hand.

CTA coordinator Alphonso Johnson said he grew up at Cabrini Green in a “culture of crime and violence, gangs, guns and drugs” to which he admittedly contributed.

“I told myself when I came home it was gonna be hard. But, so is prison. So is sitting in the visiting room watching your family leave. So is getting up when somebody tells you to get up and going to sleep when somebody tells you to go to sleep,” Johnson said.

“My mission [now] is to work hard and provide for my family. You don’t understand the impact when my wife is sitting there with the bills laid out and I can say, `Hey, let me pay it.’ Or I can say, `Let me do the grocery shopping.’ Now we’re a team. When you give a man an opportunity to provide for his family, it completes him.”

Emanuel was clearly moved by the discussion. He later told a news conference that his own effort to prevent ex-offenders from becoming re-offenders “doesn’t equal the moral courage we just heard.”

Still, it was enough to win high praise from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Il.), who has made championing the cause of ex-offenders his life’s work.

“Every year, more than 750,000 of them come home from jail or prison. They need to be welcomed. They need to have barriers removed. I want to commend the mayor of Chicago for his recognition and sensitivity to that issue,” said Davis, who made many of those same comments about former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“The city of Chicago is leading the way on this issue in America.”