Luis Gonzalez had long worried that conflict at work would somehow find him at his nearby home.
For years Gonzalez had worked full time as a cashier at a rough-edged gas station on the city’s West Side. He broke up fights there, dealt with drug users, chased off would-be thieves and complied with robbers.
Then he would go a mile south to his basement apartment: four kids, he and his wife crammed in two bedrooms. Despite working 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. five days a week, the job didn’t pay enough for him to move away, and it was so close to work he would frequently run into the same rough characters in the neighborhood that he had dealt with behind the gas station counter.
One night last year he drove home after his shift. It was near midnight. He was carrying some groceries down the gangway when a car drove down the alley.
“Somebody started shooting and shot up my car, hit the car three times,” Gonzalez said. “I felt like my life was in danger. You know, I’m dealing with a lot of stuff at work. And it’s coming to my house.”
The fear from that shooting finally led to a new house far away from the conflicts at work.
But his path to that home went through the Cook County Jail. Gonzalez is one of the first beneficiaries of a partnership between Lawndale Christian Legal Center and the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust to provide housing to people who have recently been charged with crimes. The two organizations are embarking on an effort to encourage more landlords to rent to people with open or recent criminal cases, and endeavoring to show how arrestees can thrive despite legal troubles if given the right kind of support.
“In fear for my life”
The shooting at his home came around the same time as the gas station experienced a series of robberies. One time, Gonzalez said he stood helplessly behind the counter as a customer was robbed at gunpoint.
Gonzalez decided he needed a gun for protection while traveling between the gas station and his work. But he had felonies on his record for burglary and driving on a suspended license. That meant he couldn’t get a gun permit. So he reached out to a friend from his former life of crime and bought an illegal handgun.
“I was in fear for my life, so I thought the best thing for me and my safety was to buy a weapon,” Gonzalez said.
But in October of last year he was pulled over by police for a burnt out lightbulb over his license plate. He’s not sure why police then searched his car, but they found the gun and he was charged with illegal gun possession, a felony.
While he was being taken away in handcuffs, Gonzalez told his wife to get in touch with a former heroin addict who used to hang around the gas station with the other drug users. A man named Matthew McFarland.
“I got a text late at night from Louie’s wife,” McFarland remembered. “It was a very panicky text saying, ‘Louie’s been arrested. Can you help?’ ”
These days McFarland is sober. He’s the vice president of procedural justice and residential workforce development at Lawndale Christian Legal Center. But he still goes back to the gas station where he used to buy heroin. Now he goes to try and help people.
“I was going back trying to help people find jobs. I was trying to get people into treatment,” McFarland said. “[There have] been several instances where I’ve had to take somebody out of a drug overdose using Narcan.”
In the last eight years he has grown close to Gonzalez. After he got a text from Gonzalez’s wife, McFarland connected Gonzalez with Lawndale Christian’s support network. The organization provided Gonzalez with an attorney and interviewed him about what led to his arrest and what he would need to avoid getting in trouble again.
His answer was simple: housing.
McFarland said it’s an answer they hear a lot.
“We’ve been in the jail for years, interviewing people, doing needs assessments on people and, and asking them what they need and what fed into their legal problems and why they were incarcerated in the first place. And usually the first answer we get is housing.”
That’s why last April, Lawndale Christian teamed up with the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund to start a pilot program aimed at housing people who had recently been in the jail.
The Trust Fund gets millions from the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois and provides rental assistance to low-income people and families.
Annissa Lambirth-Garrett, executive director of the Trust Fund, said through their work with low-income residents, they have helped people who have formerly been in jail or prison, but this partnership with the Legal Center is the first time they’ve specifically targeted that population. She said the program “fit in perfectly” with the Trust Fund’s goals of helping people who have been “historically overlooked.”
“Families experience trauma in community areas, and the trust fund gives them an opportunity to go anywhere in the city to remove themselves from that, and to get a new start,” Lambirth-Garrett said.
Through the partnership, the Trust Fund provides the rental money to cover the gap between what a client can afford to pay (about one-third of their income) and their actual housing needs.
“Helping to reduce violence”
Gonzalez’s family is one of 17 helped by the program to get into new homes. Their goal is to provide housing to 70 families. They have the money. The trickiest part is convincing landlords to rent to people with recent or ongoing criminal cases.
That’s why the Legal Center is hosting a housing summit on April 25, to bring landlords and recent clients together to highlight success stories.
“We want to educate landlords and property owners across the city of Chicago, that this is a population that’s worth investing in,” McFarland said. “That they’re essentially providing support, not just to our families, but by renting to our clients, they’re helping to reduce violence in the city of Chicago.”
Gonzalez said he’s evidence that providing this kind of help could have a direct impact on gun violence in the city.
After his car got shot up outside his old apartment, he told the police he was pretty sure the shooter was someone he’d had a conflict with at work. Gonzalez remembers the officers telling him he should “move out of this area, it’s not safe.” But he couldn’t afford to do that, so he felt like he had to get the gun. Now that he has moved, he doesn’t feel like he needs one anymore.
“I got a lot of weight off my shoulders, because I don’t have to fear that same fear,” Gonzalez said. “The best part of the house is my safety. I feel like I’m safe. I feel like my kids are safe.”
Gonzalez and his family moved into the four-bedroom home on Chicago’s South Side about two months ago.
“When I got there with my kids. It was an amazing experience. I walked into the house. First thing my kids started crying, you know, and it brought tears to my eyes. Because, I mean, I work hard, I did what I can, but I just couldn’t afford to get to where I was to where I’m at now.”