Chicago consistently has more killings than any other U.S. city. In fact, it has more shootings and killings than New York City and Los Angeles combined. And while the number of homicides fell in 2017 and 2018, so far in 2019, nearly 1,700 people in Chicago have been shot and 300 have been killed. Most of the violence takes place on the city’s South and West sides, and nearly 80% of homicide victims are African American.
For residents of one Southwest Side bungalow, that violence hits particularly close to home. A group of young men have chosen to escape street violence by living together in an innovative safe house program.
Chicagoans Liz Dozier and Rami Nashashibi came up with idea for the house. Nashashibi is a 2017 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and founding executive director of IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. Dozier is former principal at Fenger High School on Chicago’s South Side. She’s now the founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, a philanthropic investment fund aimed at improving the lives of at-risk 18- to 24-year-olds in Chicago.
Below, a Q&A with Dozier and Nashashibi about this innovative housing program providing at-risk young men with a safe place to call home.
How’d you come up with the idea for creating the safe house?
Dozier: After being the principal at Fenger High School on the South Side, I decided to start Chicago Beyond in 2016. The catalyst for the safe house was when one of my all-time favorite students was killed in 2017. At his funeral I ran into another student. We talked about how he was likely to be the next one shot. So I talked to him about whether he really wanted to get out of this. I said I’d look into a safe place where he could go. I wanted to find a place where he could get a fresh start, and I couldn’t really find anything.
Tell us about the concept of the house.
Nashashibi: We call it a youth leadership home. We purposely don’t say emergency housing. It’s important that the residents saw this not just as a home for fleeing violence but as a long-term alternative to a better life path. We have a house resident leader who not only enforces the curfew and no drug or alcohol policy, but gives them guidance in terms of his own life experiences and recommendations for where they can get health care, mental health services, job training, etc. … Our resident leader is in his 50s. He spent his entire adult life in prison after receiving a life sentence for a murder committed when he was 16. He was released from jail in 2017.
How do you decide who gets to live here?
Nashashibi: Each of our residents came into this home because they were in imminent danger of violence. Either that they were going to be shot, or they were going to be forced into a situation where they’d have to commit violence. That said, if they’re not up for living by our house rules, we won’t let them live here, because it will disrupt the living situation for everyone else. We have a curfew and no alcohol/drug policy. And all visitors have to be pre-approved by the resident leader before entering the house.
Tell us more about the importance of anonymity.
Dozier: To truly have a fresh start, they need to remove themselves from the lives they were leading. Many of these guys were in gangs and this house is an attempt to escape that. Some of our young men really struggle with walking away from that old life. Sometimes they venture out to reconnect with friends and family, even though it puts all their lives in danger. We realize that we can’t always separate people from their families. We also realize that their families can be at risk. So we just funded a project which will provide a “safe house” apartment for an entire family.