AUSTIN — Things are looking up for Theo Watson.
The 44-year-old father of three just got a raise and is close to achieving his dream of becoming an outreach worker. After surviving a nearly three-decade heroin addiction, a gunshot wound to the leg, and five stints in prison, Watson is taking steps to change his future.
“I want to move out of this area,” he said. “I want to go where my baby can come outside and play in our yard without someone shooting. And I can go on my porch without someone talking about rocks.”
Watson is taking his lunch break in the cafeteria at the Freedman Seating factory. Still sweating from his work at the welding station, he’s been building chairs for ferries and trains as part of the READI program — the program he credits with saving his life.
READI is the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, a radical new experiment from Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty organization, that could change how Chicago communities treat violence.
Hand-picked by a unique violence-predicting algorithm as well as referrals from outreach workers and partners in the criminal justice system, READI participants are among the most likely to be shot or shoot someone in the city.
For 18 months, these extremely high-risk Chicagoans are given transitional jobs, cognitive behavioral therapy and legal and social services to help them pave a different future. Afterwards, they also receive an additional six months of coaching to help them find full-time work.
Conceived by researchers at the University of Chicago and based on the latest violence prevention research, READI has a four-year budget of $48.7 million funded by 11 groups including the MacArthur and Polk Bros. foundations.
The program is operating in four of the neighborhoods hardest hit by gun violence in the city: Austin, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Greater Englewood. Since its rollout in September of last year, more than 160 men have started working. Heartland expects to connect 500 men to jobs by spring of next year.
The participants are almost all African-American between the ages of 18 and 32 years old. African-American men aged 15-34 made up over half of the city’s homicide victims in the last two years despite being just 4 percent of the city’s population.
Additionally, nearly 60 percent of READI participants have been the victim of a violent crime, such as a shooting. They also have been heavily involved in the criminal justice system; participants have been arrested an average of 16 times. Forty percent are currently on probation or parole, and 14 percent are on electronic monitoring.
“If just half of this program works, it will be a national game changer for violence prevention,” said READI Senior Director Eddie Bocanegra, who previously worked at Cease Fire and the Chicago YMCA’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program.
Data Meets Relentless Outreach
Chicago has many anti-violence programs, from after-school tutoring to street outreach initiatives. But none precisely target the men at the highest risk of being involved in gun violence like READI does. This is a mistake, said Edward Latessa, director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati.
“Think about it. If you want to reduce recidivism, you have to focus on the people who want to recidivate,” Latessa said. Doing violence prevention programs with less at-risk people “would be like giving chemotherapy to the people who didn’t have cancer,” he added.
One of the ways READI finds men at the heart of the gun violence epidemic is through big data. Using information from publicly available police reports and arrest records, the University of Chicago Crime Lab developed a data model that uses between 400 and 500 variables to predict someone’s risk. (For comparison, the Chicago Police Department’s Strategic Subject List uses about eight variables to predict who’s most likely to be a shooting perpetrator or victim in the city.)
The Crime Lab model uses machine learning — similar to what’s used by Netflix to predict what movie you might like to watch — to figure out how important variables are and what combination of life events might spell danger.
“It would be hard for a human mind to process, but a computer can do it,” Crime Lab Research Director Max Kapustin explains.
The model’s accuracy is startling. Kapustin has gone back and tested the algorithm on past records of gun violence and found that it did an impressive job of predicting who would be shot.
Still, Kapustin acknowledges that the data tool has limits. Since they only use adult records, if a man has only juvenile records or has never been picked up by the police, he wouldn’t show up in their pool of at-risk individuals.
So READI works with their seven partner organizations — including Cease Fire on the South Side and the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago on the West Side — and administrators in the criminal justice system to fill the gaps.
Once they are selected, READI workers use “relentless outreach and engagement” to find the men and convince them to join the program.
‘All I Ever Wanted Was A Chance’
Watson is one of the program’s oldest participants. A heroin addict for 27 years, he joined READI in December when he decided there was no way he was going back to prison for a sixth time.
“I don’t want to rob and stick up any more,” Watson said. “I don’t want to go to jail any more. I come here because I like this, I come here because it’s a job and I also come here because I want to continue to work on me and my thinking because I’ve done so much wrong all my life.”
Watson, who has been off drugs since 2016, said he’s has been talking to the staff at the Institute for Nonviolence about becoming an outreach worker there. If that doesn’t work out, he’s hoping to get a job in waste management.
“I’m ready to do right,” Watson said.
Anthony Williams, 22, remembers when outreach workers from CeaseFire came up to him on the street in December and offered him a place at READI. It took him a full 10 minutes to answer them.
“I just started looking around as I’m thinking about it,” Williams said. “I’m like, ‘hell yeah!’ That’s all I ever wanted was a chance for people outside of my blood family to show that they care about me. Now I’ve got that.”
Williams was taking his lunch break alongside Watson in the cafeteria at Freedman Seating factory in Austin. As part of his transitional job work, Williams was working in the inventory department, sorting parts for the chairs that would eventually be installed on buses and trains.
The city had just had its most violent week of the year, with nine dead and 76 wounded. Many of the shootings were concentrated on the South and West sides, in neighborhoods like this one. It’s a reality that Williams said he knows well.
“Before the program, I was out bullshitting around,” Williams said. “Being angry all of the time. Selling drugs. Running from the police, all of that.”
Williams was wearing a black T-shirt under a bright yellow work vest. Tattoos graced his smiling face — a cross on his forehead to indicate that he’s “forever blessed,” a red teardrop to mark the death of his 18-year-old cousin to gun violence, the name of his 5-year-old daughter.
When Williams was first arrested at 17, his daughter was just 7 months old. He was charged with aggravated battery and robbery and tried as an adult. He pled guilty because he was “thirsty to come home,” but he said he didn’t do the crime. The case would mark the start of many cycles in prison. He would get out and then get arrested for violating his probation, carrying small amounts of marijuana or possessing firearms.
When he came home after his most recent stint in prison in 2017, he promised his daughter that he was never going to leave her again. But the lure of the streets was too much. In August last year, he and three of his friends were shot in a drive-by while standing on the corner. One of his friends was shot seven times. Somehow, none of them died. The very next day, he limped back to the same corner.
Since joining READI, Williams has tried to leave that past behind him. But it isn’t always easy.
Just last week, after celebrating over one year out of prison, Williams was arrested on a domestic violence charge.
He’s out of jail, and READI’s outreach team is now working to support him in his legal proceedings. When he’s ready to return to work, staff member Larry Alexander says they are ready for him.
An Uphill Battle
Many men in the program have had a hard time leaving street life behind. Six participants have been shot since READI began last fall. In June, one participant was shot and paralyzed. Two outreach workers were also caught in crossfire while talking to a participant in Austin. The participant’s friend was shot and killed.
Earlier this year, a READI van was shot at a dozen times after someone spotted some of the participants at a gas station. No one was hurt. But the incidents brought home just how close to the edge everyone was living.
“When you think about it from a public health approach, our individuals are grappling with an illness that often has not been diagnosed,” READI Senior Director Bocanegra said. “What we’re trying to do is to encourage them to take these small steps in their lives so that they could see larger gains in the long term.”
Those incremental changes often come with slips along the way. Participants are allowed to drop out of the program and come back without punishment.
Gillian Darlow, CEO of Polk Brothers Foundation, an early funder of the program, anticipates participants will drop out an average of seven times. If they are sent to jail while enrolled in READI, they are welcome to return when they are released.
“When I see our guys showing up two or three days in a row, that’s a gain for me,” Bocanegra said. A couple of READI participants are living out of their car and still showing up to work, he said. Another spent his first paycheck on a bicycle so that he could get to work the next day. As of the end of March, participants worked an average of 73 percent of the time.
On a cloudless day in May, Bocanegra stopped at a weathered memorial across the street from Farragut Career Academy in Little Village. Two faded paintings of the Virgin Mary keep watch over a handwritten sign that reads, “Gio.”
Bocanegra grew up in this neighborhood. He remembers playing baseball in the field across the street, joining a gang and spray-painting a red brick building that was owned by a cop.
Then, at age 18, Bocanegra was sent to prison for a gang-related murder. When he was let out, 14 years and 3 months later, he knew he wanted to take a different path. He went to school, eventually getting his master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and becoming the executive director of the Chicago YMCA’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program.
It was there he met Gio. The young man had spent two years at Stateville prison for climbing up a pole and stealing a police camera. When Gio got out, Bocanegra helped him find a job.
On a cold night in January 2014, Bocanegra came by Gio’s house to see how he was doing. He was taking a couple young men from the YMCA to the movies and invited Gio along. But Gio said he had work. Not long after, a car pulled out of the alley and started shooting. Gio ran, but slipped on the ice. He was shot in the chest and head. Police never caught Gio’s killer.
“A lot of the reasons that we ended up in prison is because of our behaviors and not knowing that if we could have just spent another five seconds or an extra minute to think before we acted, we wouldn’t be here,” Bocanegra said. “The same thing is true for Gio and the circumstances that led to him getting shot and for the person who shot him. I’m assuming the shooter is grappling with what he’s done and thinking, ‘Man, if I had not gone there. If I had just taken a minute and not gotten into that car or not gone to get this gun.’ Perhaps that person wouldn’t have shot Gio.”
One of the ways that READI is helping those at the highest risk of gun violence slow down their thinking is through cognitive behavioral therapy sessions three times a week. Dubbed “Control-Alt-Delete,” the therapy is meant to reboot their behaviors and curb impulsivity. University of Cincinnati’s Latessa calls CBT “one of the top things that works in reducing recidivism.”
In April, six READI participants sat chatting around a table on the second floor of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago ahead of their CBT session. Sunlight poured in from a large north-facing window. On the opposite wall, a mesmerizing Uncle Sam jumped out of a starburst with the command: “Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause.”
When the clock hits nine o’clock, job coach Raqueal Pullums opens the session with a question: What do you like to do that doesn’t cost any money?
It’s a question that touches on a complaint by some of the young men. READI provides participants a salary of $11 to $12.50 an hour for up to 29.5 hours of work per week plus a daily stipend of $25 for participating in cognitive behavior therapy and professional development programs. (Heartland estimates that each participant will make $15,300 in wages and stipends by the time they are done with READI).
While it’s steady work that provides plenty of nonfinancial benefits, it’s less than what many of the men are used to making. As one participant told me: “The money from READI is slightly helpful. We were selling drugs. I would spend $200 on a pair of shoes. Now I spend $60. But you value the money you get now more because you earned it.”
The conversation quickly swung from free pastimes to the need for money.
“I was tempted for real to go out there and hustle yesterday,” Willliams said, sitting with his back to the window. “There’s new weed out there. But it’s nice out and I don’t want to get shot. I’ve got to get a raise.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” Pullums said. “We’ve got to stay out of the way and make it back for another day.”
Pullums gave the men a scenario. A man lost his new job after failing a drug test for marijuana. He’s mad at everyone and keeps thinking, “If only.” If only, he hadn’t smoked that one night. If only, his boss had been nicer. If only, his dad hadn’t left him.
“Have you ever found yourself thinking ‘if only’?” Pullums asked.
“I think back to 2013 when I was at the CCA school on Pulaski,” Williams said. “I was supposed to take the ACT, but I skipped class and caught my first case. If I would have taken my ass to school to take my ACT, I wouldn’t have been locked up. I think I would have never been locked up.”
“I think about what if my dad was around,” said Tony Minter, 47, a participant who had recently came back from a month break from READI. “But you have to look at the man in the mirror. I’m on the front line.”
“In the last two months, I’ve lost six people,” added one participant in a grey hoodie. “Not including the two people I lost in the last two days, who were my homies on the street.”
At this, crew leader Andre Armstrong jumped up and grasped the nearest man on the shoulder.
“We need to go up to a man and say, ‘Do you really need to kill that person?’” Armstrong said.
“That’s one gun down. That’s how it works. There’s a possibility we can be safe in our neighborhood. We’re perpetrators. We take credit for it. But this is what we’re doing now. If we’re silent, then we deserve to live in violence.”
‘Don’t Write Me Off’
After 27 years as a heroin addict and committing crimes to fund his addiction, Watson is basking in how normal his life is right now.
“It feels good to have a job, it also feels good to be able to get off [work] and go get into the car with my wife and we can go to the store and get whatever we want,” he said. “I ain’t got to look over my shoulder ’cause I ain’t selling no drugs, you know how good that feels?”
Watson said READI’s approach is realistic and allows room for error, which he believes can make a real impact in Austin, where he’s spent his entire life.
“Man, these people actually will really give you a chance,” he said. “If they see somebody like sliding off, or not going to work or something like that … they will give them another chance ’cause they know, they know the struggle.
“That’s all I asked for was a chance to prove that I could do better. Just don’t write me off. I know with things like this, programs like this, this will change a lot of lives if we just continue to do this and keep bringing people in.”