“Our community needs a transitional house … we’re gonna reach out and help people get employment, help them bond back with their families and be able to give back to the community.”
— Casandis Hunt, peer mentor at FirstFollowers, talking about the impending opening of FirstSteps Community House, a residence in Champaign for people returning home from prison.
“Experts who have studied our current corrections programs agree that every individual leaving prison needs three key things—employment, housing and healthcare. In fact, without the most basic of human needs—a roof over a head—justice-involved individuals struggle to reintegrate, at great cost to Illinois’ public safety and to the fabric of our communities.”
— Re-Entry Housing Issues in Illinois, 2019 report by Illinois Justice Project and Metropolitan Planning Council.
In the summer of 2016, a group of peer mentors from FirstFollowers, including Casandis Hunt, attended the annual Champaign-Urbana Days celebration in Douglass Park. While most people showed up ready for barbecue and connecting with old friends and family, we arrived with a stack of surveys. We knew that the majority of those attending C-U Days would be Black people who had been touched by incarceration in one way or another. As an emerging organization trying to advance the rights and interests of formerly incarcerated people, we wanted to hear from the community about how well they thought the needs of people coming home from prison were being met.
Most of the answers we got from our survey told us things we already knew—that people with felony convictions had a hard time getting employment, that incarceration had a negative impact on families, that landlords were not very welcoming to people with a criminal background. But one statistic shocked us thoroughly: 85 percent of those we surveyed believed that authorities should provide transitional housing for people when they were released from incarceration. This statistic launched us on a mission. We wanted to delve deeper into this issue.
Our first step was to follow this up with another survey at C-U Days the next summer. This time we focused on how well the housing needs of formerly incarcerated people in our county were being met. We found an overwhelming consensus that people coming from prison had serious problems finding housing, and that they needed some kind of assistance, especially those individuals with children. Eighty-three percent disagreed with the City of Champaign’s ordinance which allows landlords to discriminate against people who have certain felony convictions. Our conclusion was that we should “develop a plan for transitional housing for those coming home from prison to be run by FirstFollowers.” To reach this goal, we conducted internal workshops to develop that plan. We also did our own research. We found that Illinois was an especially harsh place for those coming out from behind the walls. In many cases, if a person doesn’t have a place to stay that is approved by the Department of Corrections, they won’t be released when they complete their sentence. Instead, they remain incarcerated for up to another year and a half. Since it costs about $40,000 to keep someone in prison for a year, the state is deciding they would rather spend $60,000 to keep someone locked up for an extra year and a half than use even a small portion of that money for housing. To make matters worse, people who are released from prison receive only $10 from the Department of Corrections, as “gate money.” There is an alternative. The Reentry Housing Issues in Illinois report estimated the state could save up to $100 million by providing permanent supportive housing for those coming home from prison. The savings would come from reduced costs of incarceration, reduced financial damage due to crime, and tax contributions from the wages of formerly incarcerated people who would be employed.
After completing our research, we shared the findings and our plan with government officials and the community. We talked to whoever would listen about the near total absence of transitional housing in Champaign County. Marlon Mitchell, the founder and Director of FirstFollowers, placed housing at the center of addressing the needs of people coming home. As he put it, “A stable foundation is critical to anyone’s success, and housing is the cornerstone of that foundation.”
Finally, we have succeeded. After more than three years of preparation, in September we will launch the FirstSteps Community House in Champaign to house four men who are coming home from prison.
The Path to FirstSteps
This transitional housing project has largely been driven by two FirstFollowers mentors, Casandis Hunt and Charles Davidson. Both of them have experienced the challenge of trying to reconnect to family and community after a prison sentence without an adequate place to stay. Casandis Hunt likes to emphasize that for a fully grown person to come home and end up sleeping on their “Grandma’s couch” is a humiliating experience, the kind of experience that drives a person back to previous habits. After completing one of his prison terms, Charles Davidson wandered the streets, and ended up reincarcerated within a month. He is determined that other people should not repeat his fate. “We’re gonna be there mentoring them,” Davidson vows, “whatever they need, IDs, substance abuse counseling, we will be there.”
While FirstFollowers efforts have been essential to making this a reality, the transition house would not have come to fruition without a profound intervention by the Housing Authority of Champaign County (HACC). David Northern, the new Executive Director of HACC, brought a fresh vision to his agency by launching a Request for Proposals for organizations to run a transition house in one of the residences owned by HACC. FirstFollowers’ proposal was one of those accepted. As a result, the Housing Authority will provide a five-bedroom house free of charge. HACC will also guarantee housing support for those individuals who live in FirstSteps for a period of time and are ready to move out and live on their own. This is a welcome change of direction for our community.
The final step in consolidating this effort is mobilizing the funds to cover the operating costs. The response so far has been overwhelming. More than $30,000 has been raised via house parties, online fundraisers and considerable support from a wide range of members of the faith and social justice activist community. We are more than halfway to our target. As I write this, we are preparing our renovation team to paint, plaster and beautify the house for our first group of residents. We are determined that they will have a unique, life-changing experience in our house, and that FirstSteps Community House will be the embodiment of our motto, “Building Community Through Reentry.”
If you want to learn more about FirstFollowers or contribute to their FirstSteps Community House Fund, visit their website at www.firstfollowersreentry.com.
James Kilgore is the Co-Director of FirstFollowers.