Victor Gaskins is quick to point out that St. Leonard’s House is not really a housing provider. Housing is simply a benefit of participating in the program that this “re-entry services facility”—commonly known as a halfway house—offers to men being released from Illinois’ prison system. Gaskins, who has acted as director of the Near West Side facility since 2008, explains that as long as clients are participating in the program and working toward their recovery, they will have a place to stay at St. Leonard’s. Nevertheless, when he describes the ministry’s history, it becomes clear that providing supportive, accessible housing has been central to the mission of St. Leonard’s since its inception and that housing may, in fact, be the most significant assistance the organization provides.
Illinois’s prison system, like the rest of the United States’, faces a recidivism crisis. Of the 30,583 people released from the state’s correctional facilities in 2011, 47% will return to prison according to the Department of Corrections’ own statistics.1 St. Leonard’s analysis of this problem is simple; people who are released from prison without money, prospects for employment, or housing tend to end up in the same desperate situations that landed them in jail the first time. Accordingly, St. Leonard’s offers a program consisting of job training, addictions counseling, a high school diploma program, and perhaps most importantly, secure, no-cost housing.
Treating housing as an anti-recidivism strategy has a great deal in common with the “recovery” philosophy that guides traditional 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. In recovery discourse, the phrase “people, places, and things” is used to refer to things that commonly trigger relapses in recovering addicts. When St. Leonard’s was founded in 1954, it was because a chaplain at the Cook County Jail noticed that the same was true for prisoners. Those who returned to their old neighborhoods, lifestyles, and social circles tended to return to jail, creating the recidivism crisis that confounds Illinois’s prison system. St. Leonard’s recidivism rate of only 20% demonstrates the efficacy of its approach.2
The recovery and re-entry program offered by St. Leonard’s is six months long, beginning with three months of intensive programming and followed by another three months in which residents look for housing and employment. Clients who have completed the program are eligible for residence at St. Andrew’s Court, St. Leonard’s long-term housing facility. St. Andrew’s provides SRO (single room occupancy) accommodations for 42 graduates of the program, with residents able to stay as long as two years. Rent is fixed at 30% of residents’ income to a maximum of $430 per month and is free for those who are unemployed or pursuing further education.
St. Andrew’s has also developed a “rent bank” system that saves money residents pay in rent in an account they are given access to when they move out. This money—which averages around five thousand dollars—provides residents with start-up funds for security deposits, furniture, and transportation in their new lives beyond St. Leonard’s.
The most significant challenge facing St. Leonard’s is a funding shortage. While the organization has grown substantially over its 58-year history, its reach is still constrained by a modest 40-bed capacity. More than 30,000 people are released from Illinois’s prisons every year, and Gaskins estimates that the facility can typically accept only two of the sixty applications it receives each week. While some observers see this extreme selectivity as the basis for St. Leonard’s success, the benefits the program offers should be obvious: it gives residents the freedom to work towards recovery without having to contend with the situations that contributed to their incarceration. ◊
1. “Annual Report FY2011,” Illinois Department of Corrections, accessed October 21, 2012, http:// www2.illinois.gov/idoc/reportsandstatistics/ Documents/FY2011%20Annual%20Report.pdf
2. “Annual Report FY2011,” Illinois Department of Corrections, accessed October 21, 2012, http:// www2.illinois.gov/idoc/reportsandstatistics/ Documents/FY2011%20Annual%20Report.pdf