By La Risa Lynch, Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –
As the name implies, A Safe Haven became a refuge for Chicago resident Daniel Soto.
At age 13, Soto joined a gang, became addicted to drugs and, subsequently, cycled in and of jail. Since age 18, he has served a total of 13 years behind bars. Now 41, Soto has a new lease of life thanks to A Safe Haven, a Chicago-based residential substance abuse treatment facility.
Soto is nearly one year sober. He has reunited with his twin 18-year-old daughters and works as a substance abuse counselor at the same agency that got him sober. Soto admits it was tough. He was mandated to the program in 2008.
“When the pressure comes, my first instinct is do what I know I have to do and that is doing the wrong stuff,” Soto said. “That is all I knew. [But] through Safe Haven, I know there is a better way.” More ex-offenders, like Soto, will get a second chance at redemption thanks to new appropriations for the Second Chance Act. This year, Congress appropriated $100 million for the act, which will fund 178 new grants nationwide.
The act provides federal funding for programs that helps ex-offenders with educational services, job training, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling. The goal is to reduce recidivism.
Safe Haven was among several Illinois agencies to receive funding under the act. Illinois received more than $4 million. Last year, Congress allotted $25 million for the Act. It is expected that the Obama administration will allocate $200 million in 2011.
Safe Haven’s $500,000 grant will expand services and provide individualized case management. The funding also replaces state funding the agency lost due to Illinois’ $13 billion budget deficit. The agency serves 4,000 formerly incarcerated and homeless individuals annually.
“This money that Congressman Davis brought to Illinois is the best stimulus package that you can come to us with,” said Neli Vazquez-Rowland, president of Safe Haven.
For each dollar spent on treatment, the state saves $7 to $18, Vazquez-Rowland explained. That $500,000 grant, she added, saves the state $3.5 million.
Second Chance funding provides resources to address juvenile delinquency, violence and addictions behaviors that could lead to incarceration, said Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-IL). He introduced the legislation in 2007. He recalled getting support for the measure was a hard sell in Congress. It was signed into law a year later.
“Lots of people told us it would never happen; that we were whistling Dixie,” he said.
But support came from an unlikely source - Former President George W. Bush. The president lamented his own recovery from alcoholism and how faith-based organizations “helped me with my drinking,” Davis recalled President Bush as saying.
Ultimately, Davis added, Second Chance is about redemption for people who have made mistakes, paid their debt to society, and want to get their life back on track.
“A lot of times when you give a guy a second chance, they make good of it,” said Tio Hardiman, of CeaseFire. “I’ve turned my life around about 20 years ago, and it’s been non-stop.”
Hardiman has been clean and sober for 20 years. He now directs CeaseFire, a violence intervention group that addresses violence from a public health standpoint.
The group employees ex-gang members as violence interrupters to mediate gang conflicts before they escalate. Over the last 10 years, CeaseFire has hired over 300 ex-offenders.
Davis earmarked $750,000 for CeaseFire. That funding is not part of Second Chance. But the funds serve the same purpose. The money allow CeaseFire to fund additional staff for its work in Chicago’s 11th police district. The district has seen 64 shootings from January to June of this year. The group works with about 100 high-risk youth and has mediated 70 conflicts that could have turned deadly.
Hardiman contends that street outreach has contributed to the declining Chicago homicide rates. He noted that since 2004, Chicago has not been in the top 25 cities for the most homicides. “We are on pace this year to get homicides under 400,” he explained. “There were 458 homicides last year. Although you hear a lot about shootings, homicides are actually down.” The Digital Development Corporation and Oversight Committee (DDCOC) received a $250,000 grant. The five-year-old organization trains ex-offenders in computer repair. The money will allow the volunteer organization to hire a career coach and focus more on job placement.
“Because we are a grassroots group we are not used to operating with funds,” DDOC’s Lowry Taylor quipped.
Located on Chicago’s West side, the group has made strides. Over the last four years, the group has trained 217 ex-offenders of which 107 have found jobs. Some West Side communities have recidivism rates upwards 56 percent.
“Our focus is to get people lives turned around and it works,” Taylor said.
Some ex-offenders who have completed the program successful have found employment making upwards of $45,000, he noted.