The people behind an ambitious, and pricey, anti-violence program say they’ve proven they can reach the most entrenched participants in Chicago street violence, connecting them with jobs and teaching them to avoid violent impulses.
And now they’re looking for taxpayer money to keep it going.
READI Chicago, which stands for Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, is a collaboration between some of the city’s biggest philanthropic organizations and the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. Last month the program hit its goal of connecting 500 “hard-to-reach men” with one of its subsidized jobs.
The program has gotten a lot of attention since it launched in 2017 in response to Chicago’s historic spike in gun violence the year before. But Senior Director Eddie Bocanegra said they heard a lot of skepticism when they explained the plan to go after the sliver of adult men who they say are responsible for most of the shootings in Chicago.
“People would make comments like ‘these people don’t want to work,’” Bocanegra said.
That’s why Bocanegra and others with READI believe hitting their goal of employing 500 men by the spring of 2019 is such a big deal.
“These men who are, again, more likely to be victims of violence and offenders of violence, they do want to work, they do want an opportunity,” Bocanegra said.
University of Chicago Crime and Education Lab Research Director Max Kapustin is in charge of evaluating the READI program, to see if the intervention succeeds in keeping participants away from gun violence.
That assessment won’t be completed until next year, but Kapustin said READI has already proven its viability.
“No one had really tried building a program quite like this, working with quite this high risk and high need a population,” Kapustin said. “I think we can say that you know it can be done. The program can be stood up, it can scale to serve quite a large number of men.”
Besides evaluating the program, Kapustin and the University of Chicago helped select potential READI participants — they developed an algorithm to help identify Chicagoans who are most likely to shoot or be shot. Other READI participants are identified by jail and prison administrators as being at high-risk while they’re incarcerated or flagged by street-level workers.
Once they’ve been identified as a good candidate, outreach workers go out to try and convince the men to join in the program. They try to lure them with the promise of a job and other services, but it’s not always an easy sell.
“You know with these guys, s*** changes every day: One day, he might have a lot of money; one day, he may be broke,” said outreach worker Marcus Simpson. “Life changes every day on the streets, so we just gotta stay in contact with them and relentlessly engage with them.”
Most of the outreach workers are from the neighborhoods they work in, and are former gang members or were formerly incarcerated themselves.
In that way, READI resembles the CeaseFire or Cure Violence program, in which former gang members try to intervene in disputes to prevent shootings.
Bocanegra spent more than three years as a violence interrupter with CeaseFire. He said he respects the organization’s work, but READI does so much more to try and bring down violence.
"You tell somebody to put their guns down, and you’re interrupting in that moment, which is critical. But you’ve gotta give them something back. In this case, we’re giving them a job,” Bocanegra said.
Beyond that, Bocanegra said, the partnership with the University of Chicago means they are truly going after the most high-risk people, not just the people already known to outreach workers.
Once a participant joins READI, he gets a $12-per-hour job with Heartland Alliance doing things like picking up trash on the street, walking shelter dogs and helping at food pantries.
At 40, Saidrick Berry is one of the oldest participants in READI.
“I got shot a couple years ago, then I went to jail, came back. It was extra hard for me to get a job, extra hard to get an apartment,” Berry said. “I wish they had this program 10 years ago.”
If they had, he thinks he may not have ever been shot, because he would have been busy doing something positive instead of being on the street.
Berry’s said he enjoys the work, but his favorite part of the READI program is the cognitive behavioral therapy.
Three days a week, before heading out to their work sites, READI participants get an hour of therapy that is meant to help them cope with trauma, and learn techniques for dealing with stressful situations and avoiding violent confrontations.
The guys in READI call the cognitive behavioral therapy CAD for “control, alt, delete” — a sort of shorthand for the techniques they learn in the class.
Berry said he uses the techniques everyday, including when he’s pulled over by police, which he says happens regularly.
“Because I’m a black man and I’m in this neighborhood … they’ll pull you over and just basically mess with you,” Berry said of the police.
The week before his interview with WBEZ, Berry said he was stopped by an officer after he made a legal right-on-red near his brother’s house in Englewood. He was giving a friend a ride who was sitting in the backseat. This friend is not in READI, and so, not getting the cognitive behavioral therapy.
“The brother I’m dropping off in the back, he’s like, ‘Bro, you made a complete stop, he on some bulls***,’” Berry recalled. “I’m like, ‘Yeah OK, let him do his job.’”
It’s almost a devil on his shoulder. And Berry said in the past he might have gotten upset, told the cop off and escalated the situation. Instead, he turned to the techniques he learned through READI: He took deep breaths, calmed his mind and tried to put himself in the officers’ shoes.
“CAD teaches you: Man, just calm down, think about it and hold fast. Have patience,” Berry said.
The stop ended with no ticket and no incident.
Bocanegra said based on the research, the combination of jobs and cognitive behavioral therapy needs to be part of efforts to stop gun violence in Chicago.
Now, Bocanegra is taking the success they’ve had so far and looking to the city for funding. He said public support is essential to the program, despite the backing READI has from some of the city’s largest philanthropic organizations.
“Long-term, READI Chicago is not going to be sustainable unless we have the buy-in and the support of the citizens of our city and our state,” Bocanegra said.
The people at READI are hopeful that having Lori Lightfoot as mayor gives them a leg up on getting that public funding.
Lightfoot’s chief of staff is Maurice Classen, who Bocanegra considers a friend from their work on the same side of anti-violence efforts. Classen used to be with the MacArthur Foundation, a READI funder.
Bocanegra was co-chair of public safety on Lightfoot’s transition team, and last month’s mayoral transition report mentioned funding READI Chicago as a potential part of violence prevention efforts.
A spokesman for Lightfoot declined to answer whether the city plans to put taxpayer dollars into READI.
“We are exploring all options to support a number of evidence-based programs that connect at-risk individuals with jobs, apprenticeships, counseling and other critical supports,” spokesman Pat Mullane said in a statement.
Paying for READI could be a pricey proposition.
Bocanegra said the average cost per person in the program is $22,000 to $23,000 per year.
And he’s estimated there could be up to 5,000 “drivers” of Chicago violence who would be candidates for READI services. That could mean an annual cost of more than $100 million to serve such a small slice of Chicago’s population.
“Often we look at a price tag ...and right away we make excuses: ‘that’s too expensive’ or ‘oh my God, that’s a lot of money, we could do a lot more with that.’ Well then, you’re not really serious about addressing violence in our city. Not at the immediate level,” Bocanegra said. “That level of thinking is why we, for years and years and years, continue to chase our tail.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.