Carla Shaw has lived in her Melrose Park, one-bedroom apartment for the last year and a half. Four months ago, she and her fiancé added baby Jaylen. He’s the first of her four children to be able to come with her from the hospital, drug-free.
“It feels great, I know I have somewhere to go to, I have a roof over my head. I have my baby,” Shaw said.
Shaw said she spent 15 years addicted to drugs, living a life “in the streets.”
“I was trafficked at a young age and I didn’t know until I got in the program,” she said, “then, I realized. It was hard.”
The program she is referring to is the drug addiction treatment program she entered through Cook County’s Rehabilitation Alternative Probation (RAP) program, or drug court.
“One of the tenets of the program is that people are going to fail. I’m not looking to send people to the penitentiary for mistakes they’ve made, as long as they’re honest and committed to their recovery, we’ll continue to work with them,” explained Cook County Circuit Court Judge Charles Burns, who presides over the court.
But after graduating from the court two years ago, Shaw met a problem familiar to many who’ve been through the criminal justice system: finding affordable housing.
“I was denied housing because the wife of a landlord didn’t want me there because of what I used to do. And then, my credit scores,” she said.
During treatment, defendants live in halfway houses or residential facilities for addiction recovery.
“But once they get through treatment, they were going back to the same neighborhoods where they grew up in. And unfortunately, those neighborhoods have a lot of danger and a lot of temptation for them,” Judge Burns explained.
Around the same time that Shaw completed (W)RAP (the court calls it WRAP for women graduates, RAP for men), Burns had just begun to partner with Housing Authority of Cook County Director Richard Monocchio to solve the problem.
“It’s hard enough to get affordable housing when you haven’t been through the criminal justice system, you don’t have other barriers to overcome,” Monocchio said. “It’s doubly hard when you do have these barriers,” Monocchio said.
They started a program allowing up to 25 drug court graduates to receive a Housing Choice voucher. Recipients pay 30% of their income toward housing and HACC pays the rest.
So far, seven graduates have received housing, seven more have received vouchers and are searching for housing. HACC hopes to expand the program to include other problem-solving courts, like Veterans Court and Mental Health Court.
It’s how Shaw got her apartment and reflects a shift from typical public housing rules that prevented people with criminal justice backgrounds from having access.
“It’s only been recently that publicly assisted housing has seen the light, and the days of the ‘one strike and you’re out’ those are the old days. It’s taken a while to get over that hurdle,” Monocchio says.
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals says there are about 4,000 drug courts across the country, but this partnership may be one-of-a-kind.
“We have the resources to do it. We have the opportunity to do it, we have partnerships, we have agencies,” Burns said. “We should do this, we should turn this around. There’s too many times we’ve just ignored these people, left them outcast and not treated them as people that are struggling with a disease.”
Burns says barely 4% of graduates commit another crime within a year of finishing, making people like Shaw worth the investment.
Now, she lives a life she said she would not have envisioned years ago, when still on drugs.
“Never! If you would’ve asked me what was I doing, I basically thought I was gonna die. I thought I was gonna die in my addiction, because that’s how bad it was out there, literally. If somebody wasn’t gonna kill me, the lifestyle was.”
Today, she has a new lease on life. Her current home is also her office, for her work as a peer mentor and case manager with the Salt & Light Coalition, which supports survivors of sex trafficking.
And she’s planning to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor, with dreams of owning her own home, where she’ll have room to have all of her children under one roof.
Follow Brandis Friedman on Twitter @BrandisFriedman