A weathered man who looked far older than his 54 years sat in a folding chair in his blue hooded sweatshirt while he retied the laces on his gym shoes.
Two women in winter jackets — one wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet — sat across the room fidgeting.
They were heroin addicts arrested in a West Side drug-diversion program launched by the Chicago Police Department in early 2016. Other cities across the country have been experimenting with similar programs as heroin-related deaths have skyrocketed, including in Chicago.
Under the West Side initiative, when the police department rounds up gang members in narcotics investigations, nonviolent sellers with drug habits are offered the chance to go through treatment and avoid criminal charges.
The 54-year-old man was one of six people who were offered that chance during a Nov. 21 narcotics roundup, which resulted in the arrests of 38 people that day.
The six addicts were taken to a former red-brick Sears, Roebuck and Co. warehouse at Homan and Fillmore, where the Chicago Police Department’s narcotics section is based on the West Side. They were placed in stark interview rooms and their shoelaces were removed — just like in jail — to prevent them from attempting suicide.
Narcotics officers interviewed them about any knowledge they might have of shootings in the neighborhoods where they were picked up — or the gangs for which they were selling drugs.
Then they were taken to another room where representatives of two drug treatment centers evaluated them. Finally, they were moved to an adjacent room where they waited for officers to transport them to the treatment centers.
Then they were allowed to retie their shoes.
The 54-year-old man told Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago researcher who is evaluating the program, that he would prefer to go through outpatient treatment instead of in-patient detox. He said he had to care for an ailing, elderly parent at home.
“If you don’t like what they’re offering you when you get there, you’re free to go,” Pollack explained. “It’s up to you.”
Later, the man asked Lt. Matthew Cline, who oversees the diversion initiative for the police, how the man was picked to be in it.
“It’s your lucky day,” Cline said. “Hopefully you make the most of it.”
About 30 people have agreed to enter drug treatment through the initiative, officials say. Haymarket Center offers in-patient detoxification treatment and Thresholds does outpatient treatment.
Gabriela Zapata-Alma of Thresholds said she’s worked with about 16 people in the diversion initiative.
All are black, about half are women, and they include patients over 50 years old and under 25. Many suffer mental health illnesses.
Most are heroin addicts, and many say their parents struggled with substance-abuse addiction, too. The drug of choice for the previous generation was cocaine, not heroin, which is prevalent on the West and South Sides now, Zapata-Alma said.
Treatment has proved successful for many of the participants, who’ve been able to get full-time jobs or go back to school, Zapata-Alma said.
Others have gotten “sucked back into the chaos of their daily lives,” she said.
“It’s hard to focus on treatment when you don’t know what you’re going to eat,” Zapata-Alma said.
But even some of those who dropped out of treatment have returned to the program, she said.
“This is a bumpy process,” Pollack noted. “Most people don’t go from addict to former addict in two months. There is no polio vaccine for addictive disorders.”
“If we can help a person get out of the underground economy, take fewer risks to their safety and get out of drug use, that is a huge win,” he said.
U. of C. researchers are evaluating whether the program, which is being piloted only on the West Side, will reduce the likelihood of participants getting rearrested. There are early signs that the West Side initiative is helping to keep its participants out of jail, Zapata-Alma said.
In Seattle, a similar program that started in 2011 found that participants were almost 60 percent less likely to have a subsequent arrest than those in a control group. The program is being replicated in other cities, such as Baltimore.
“This speaks to the public’s desire to solve crime without adding to the mass-incarceration problem,” said Pollack, a co-director of the U. of C. Crime Lab.
Cline, who works in the department’s narcotics section, acknowledged that the West Side diversion initiative is a new twist on policing.
“Did I ever think I would be doing this? Not really,” the 19-year veteran said. “But you do feel bad for some of these people that get caught up in this way of life.”
Cline said the people who are invited into the treatment program are selling small quantities of drugs to pay for their own habits. The bosses of the drug operations consider them “disposable” employees, he said.
“We get no joy locking up someone who is a substance abuser and is not necessarily a bad guy otherwise. It is nice to know that maybe this can, if applied correctly, hopefully turn a few people around,” Cline said.