Mayor Lightfoot’s anti-violence budget sparks debate between non-profits and critics

Kenneth Watkins is looking forward to moving on from life as a gang member. Watkins almost went back to being a gang member when he couldn't find a job, but then he came to know about READI Chicago .

By Arnab Mondal
Medill Reports

As he leaves his house every morning to go to his job, Kenneth Watkins’ mother wishes him a good day with a smile.

“She used to look so worried whenever I left the house,” Watkins said. “The only thing she used to say to me was ‘Stay safe.’ But she looks so happy and relieved now.”

Watkins works at Chicago Animal Care and Control, where he tends and trains pets in the shelter. “Spending the entire day with these animals puts my mind at ease,” he said. “I love being here, and I really want to change. I don’t want to go back to selling drugs.”

Watkins is among thousands of people who have been given a new lease on life by a group of Chicago organizations that are combatting gun violence. They are doing it by offering rehabilitation and employment to individuals who are at the greatest risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of gun violence.

This model is effective, said Aviva Bowen, chief of external relations for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “A lot of folks who come through the justice system don’t want to be there. They just don’t have any other options,” Bowen said, adding that the state’s attorney’s office was cooperating with these organizations by providing them with necessary administrative data on convicts. Just prosecuting people, she said, doesn’t solve the bigger picture of crime. Or, as former Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson put it, Chicago can’t arrest its way out of the crime problem.

However, this model requires considerable funding to provide optimal results. It takes work to find employers willing to provide these transitional jobs. Organizations must devote much time and resources simply to convince employers to cooperate with them, said Jane Bodmer, communications manager at READI Chicago, which sponsors Watkins and his work at the animal shelter.

“It is a big barrier for employers when employing people who have been involved with the justice system and we have to work with them extensively to get them to relax their barriers,” Bodmer said.

There are three ways through which READI identifies individuals who are at the risk of getting involved with gun violence. Firstly, it uses an algorithm developed by University of Chicago Crime Lab to identify individuals likely to shoot or be shot by accessing police or hospital data.

The second way is through community contribution. The various community partners administering the program are local neighborhood institutions that already have close ties in these neighborhoods. This allows them to be able to identify people who might be at risk of getting involved in gun violence.

The final way is reentry, where READI cooperates with prison administrators to identify high-risk inmates, and then engages them as soon as they are released from incarceration.

“A lot of the time, we don’t have much information, maybe just a name and a photo,” Bodmer said. “So, the outreach workers spend a lot of time building relationships. They engage them for about a year. So, they have a lot of contact with them, before they come into the program.” Each outreach worker handles a caseload of no more than 15 participants at a time. READI alone collaborates with four outreach partners—Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, which operates in the Austin and West Garfield Park areas; Heartland Alliance Englewood Outreach, which operates in the Englewood, West Englewood and Bronzeville areas; and Lawndale Christian Legal Center and UCAN, both of which operate in the North Lawndale area. READI also has to fund these organizations to train outreach workers in restorative justice, trauma-informed care and cognitive behavioral therapy. Most of the outreach workers not only are from the neighborhoods they operate in, they themselves have a history of gangs and gun violence.

More than two dozen organizations petitioned the city administration to earmark $50 million for community-based anti-violence programs in the 2020 budget proposal. But in an address on October 23, Mayor Lori Lightfoot indicated that she was proposing only $9 million for violence prevention programs. Coupled with additional funding for street outreach programs through the Department of Public Health and the salaries of employees of the newly established Mayor’s Office of Public Safety, the total budget for violence prevention amounts to $11.5 million.

Anti-violence activist, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, called the mayor’s effort “a drop in the bucket.” Eddie Bocanegra, senior director of READI, said that if Lightfoot truly intends to address the problem of violence in Chicago, she must prove it with her budget. “Nine million won’t help sustain the programs that private community groups have already invested in,” Bocanegra said. He also urged Lightfoot to see the vital importance of the anti-violence programs conducted by these private organizations.

Before joining the anti-violence organization READI Chicago, Watkins was in prison for the third time for selling drugs. Growing up, gangs and drugs were ubiquitous in Watkins’ life. Most of his friends were members of the street gang Four Corner Hustlers, and the gang lifestyle seemed natural for Watkins. By the time he was 11 years old, he had joined the gang himself. “The gang was a support system,” Watkins said. “I could make some quick money selling drugs. I could eat, I had a place to live in, and I could wear good clothes. It also kept me safe.”

After coming out of jail for the third time, Watkins decided to turn a new leaf. He started looking for an honest job, but people were hesitant to hire a former gang member. “I became so desperate that I even started considering going back to the old life of crime just to make a living,” he said.

A READI outreach worker came to know about Watkins’ situation and approached him in his house in West Garfield Park, and offered him a job that changed Watkins’ life.

“If nobody offers individuals coming out of prison a second chance, if they don’t have any way to feed themselves, they will just go back to the old behavior,” said Priscilla Foster, chief operating officer at The Renaissance Collaborative, an anti-violence organization that uses the same rehabilitation model.

Most of these organizations put the new model into effect after the great crime spike of Chicago in 2016, which saw 734 homicides and 4,097 shootings in that year alone. Since then, the city has seen a steady decline in crime, with 474 homicides and 2,526 shootings so far in 2019, a decline of 60 homicides and 223 shootings compared with 2018. However, Chicago still records more crimes than New York or Los Angeles, both of which have larger populations.

Critics contend that the anti-violence initiatives by private organizations are not entirely foolproof. While Lavelle Daniels, a crew chief at READI who oversees workers at Chicago Animal Care and Control, believes in the necessity of this initiative, he also recognizes a few flaws in the plan. According to him, participants frequently want to give up on the program. “They’ll start fake fights, try to act out or even try to provoke us,” he said. “It is a challenging task to keep the order in these groups.”

Daniels said that the crew chiefs have to be firm yet not aggressive when dealing with the situation. They have to be understanding towards the troublemaker to calm the situation. Daniels himself is a former member of Vice Lords, one of the oldest gangs in Chicago, which helps him find common ground with participants.

Sometimes other members of the group step in to handle the situation.

“After spending a lot of time in gangs and in prison, everybody thinks aggression is how you show strength,” Watkins said. “But we talk to them and tell them that’s not how we do things anymore, that we just want to help them.”

Daniels also said that the situation becomes worse when new participants join a group that he has been working hard to improve. “There are situations where the new guy’s attitude would cause a relapse in the progress of somebody who’s been here for months,” Daniels said.

The organizations set strict rules to keep the participants in line. They are not allowed to carry cellphones, to go to a store or buy lunch for themselves during work hours. This makes some of the participants angry, Daniels said, as they feel they are being treated like children.

READI’s Bodmer admitted that it is a difficult task to convince people to leave the easy source of income gangs offer. It is even harder to successfully rehabilitate them so that they are not drawn to crime. “This such a high-risk population,” she said. “They have a lot of barriers, from their mental health to physical health.”

A Chicago academic who studies the issue contends that this model of rehabilitation through employment can backfire if not handled carefully. “With such a high-risk population, you cannot just find them jobs and call it a day,” said the academic, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “You also have to change how these people view society and how they react towards it.”

He also said it is not easy for the participants to remain committed to the process long enough to change their lives.

Yet it is still possible to convince people to move away from gun violence. And the key component, according to Bodmer, is relentless engagement. She said, “We don’t give up on people.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Photo at top: Kenneth Watkins is looking forward to moving on from life as a gang member. Watkins almost went back to being a gang member when he couldn’t find a job, but then he came to know about READI Chicago. (Arnab Mondal/MEDILL)