Chicago legal center pilots job training, housing program

MAC House
Fredrick Dennis sweeps the floors of his new North Lawndale apartment, where he lives as part of the MAC House program. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)

By Harry Huggins

Fredrick Dennis, Darrin Brown and Cecil Palmer are three young men renovating their own apartment on Chicago’s West Side.

They’re part of the MAC House, a new program from the Lawndale Christian Legal Center that combines transitional housing with job training. The guys in the program have one thing in common: they’ve been through Chicago’s criminal justice system at least once before.

The MAC house is an experiment for the Legal Center. The goal is to connect these three guys and their three roommates with the support they need to get a job, live in a stable environment and keep out of trouble with the law. To do that, the legal center pays for their housing, living expenses and, most importantly, full-time job training. If all goes according to plan, all six young men will enter the paid apprenticeship program for Chicago’s Local 150, the union for heavy machinery operators.

Cliff Nellis helped form the plan, based off another program in Wisconsin (the acronym stands for Mark Alan Connelly, the brother and inspiration of the organization’s founder). Nellis runs the Legal Center in North Lawndale.

The MAC House serves a neighborhood that needs programs like this. Almost 60 percent of young men in North Lawndale are unemployed. Almost 40 percent of families there live below the poverty level. Almost 15 percent of North Lawndale residents live there on parole.

So Nellis and the Legal Center put together a program that addresses all of a these guys’ needs at once. They needed housing, so they bought a couple apartments. Every participant had a part in fixing up their future home.

Larry Kimbrough helped organize the renovations. First, they tore down the old interiors. The guys redid both apartments, from the floors up to the walls, and installed new sinks and cabinets. Darren was proud of his work on the floors. Cecil already had a vision for his unfinished room.

The guys had to do all their home improvement at night since they spent their whole workday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or later, learning construction skills through a hands-on job training program.

The MAC house is uniquely connected with the heavy machinery union. They’re getting 10 construction certifications and the apprenticeship program pays. When they complete it and become full union members, they can make 25 dollars an hour.

But, as Nellis said, the program’s not charity. For the union, the partnership provides some much needed diversity. Union applications are meant to filter out people who don’t have experience in the trades. They ask questions like “Have you operated a lawn mower?” and “Have you ever operated welding equipment?” But these questions can leave behind people like the MAC House participants that grew up in urban environments.

Building your own house while going through an intensive job training program can be stressful. The participants come home from a long day of class and have to make and eat dinner with the same people they spent the whole day with, guys who have just as many problems and opinions as they do. Conflict happens, and to prevent tensions from boiling over, Nellis instituted something called “peace circles.”

Cliff and the guys and a facilitator from the legal center sit in a literal circle and talk about their problems. They pass around a figure of Jesus holding a lamb as a talking stick. Early in the program, cliff saw that mac house wouldn’t work without peace circles, where the participants can vent their frustrations and support each other in a structured setting.

The MAC house guys will apply for the union in May. The Legal center is still adjusting the program, Nellis calls it building the plane as you fly it, but when it’s done, he wants to bring it to all the unions and expand in other neighborhoods like North Lawndale.

Photo at top: Fredrick Dennis sweeps the floors of his new North Lawndale apartment, where he lives as part of the MAC House program. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)