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Finding the right terms to describe individuals who have a history of justice-system involvement of some form can be difficult. Not everyone agrees on the best language that is precise but also avoids reproducing stigma. In this piece, we have decided followed the language guidelines released by the Underground Scholars Initiative, found here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57c6105f46c3c440dca4e10f/t/5c80a6e0ee6eb0231aab7abd/1551935201303/Language+Guide+USI.pdf/.
What am I to do? Where am I to go? For that matter, who really cares? These are questions that I—like countless others—asked upon my release from prison.
When I thought about being paroled, I never thought housing would be an achilles heel against my successful transition back into society, especially after being “housed” in an Illinois Department of Corrections cell for over two decades. The many stresses placed on returning residents just to overcome their parole process is horrible in and of itself. Receiving fair and equitable housing is the beginning of being restored back to useful citizenship. Housing and employment opportunities are those rights every legislator should protect for those reentering society.
In the fall of 2017, I was newly released from the Illinois Department of Corrections after over twenty years of incarceration. Towards the end of my time in prison, I had taken college courses through the Education Justice Project, a college in prison program run by the University of Illinois, that had helped prepare me mentally for life on the outside and opened my eyes to the structural injustice of the prison system, a structure I and my fellow inmates experienced as personal. Upon release to Chicago, my hometown, I immediately involved myself in political organizing, working for candidates who promised to actually reform the justice system, not just make empty promises. I also founded my own non-profit to help others going through the same transition. It was around this time that I spoke with Madeleine about the difficulties I had experienced finding housing. Unlike many others in my position, I could afford an apartment, but I was still having trouble finding a place to live. I couldn’t believe that the State of Illinois had paid to “house” me in prison for all that time, but could not provide any resources or assistance when it came to finding a place to live on the outside. If anything, the State actually hinders the ability of returning residents like myself to find decent housing by failing to protect us from the stigma of a criminal record. Additionally, I felt there were certain areas of the city that were off limits to me. And the areas where I thought I probably could find a place? I didn’t want to live there.
Talking with Madeleine and others working in justice reform policy and advocacy, we came up with a plan: before we could make a change, we needed to know more about the specific barriers that returning residents were facing on the housing market. It’s not that housing wasn’t available, but it was uneven, and we suspected that folks experienced different challenges based on different aspects of their identity like age, race, and gender. So, we designed this study to get a better sense of the geography of housing opportunity for Chicagoans with criminal records. While most of those people we talked to had spent time in prison or jail, we widened the scope to include those with other types of criminal records, like arrest records that didn’t lead to a sentence, since those kinds of records appear on landlord background screenings too. Most importantly, we based our study around one key value: as justice reform advocate Glenn Martin says, “those people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution” (JustLeadership 2019). In other words, if we wanted to come up with some better solutions, we had to talk to the people being directly impacted: the people who fill our cities but are so often excluded from policy debates. —Tyrone F. Muhammad
The remainder of this paper describes our study, which was conducted as a partnership between Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) and Roosevelt University. Below, we review briefly our outreach and methods, and highlight some key results, before reflecting on the importance of narrative and the promise of elevating community voices for changing policy.
Our study draws on 81 individual, semi-structured interviews conducted at locations throughout Chicago between January and June 2018. Using a snowball sampling method, our team reached out to area non-profits and service providers that worked with returning residents or others with criminal records. As more organizations heard about the project, we were contacted by more and more agencies and individuals who wanted to be involved. In total, eleven community organizations helped recruit participants to the study.
In addition to answering interview questions, participants were asked to sketch on a map where, if anywhere, they thought they could find a place to live in the city of Chicago. During the interview, then, participants were asked to explain why they indicated the areas they did, what specific reasons they thought they could find an apartment to rent there and not somewhere else, and where, if anywhere, they had experienced rental rejection in the past.
Because a goal of our study was to uplift the voices of individuals impacted by systemic discrimination and decades of punitive policies, we knew that the process of carrying out the study would be as important as the results. Working through organizations that serve a range of constituencies in a diverse reach of neighborhoods, we were sensitive to adapting to the culture of each organization that we worked with and meeting participants where they were. We conducted interviews in between group sessions at addiction counseling centers, after evening services at halfway houses, in the back offices of violence prevention organizations, and in the hallways of record sealing workshops, among other settings. Interviewees frequently asked what the outcomes of the project would be and we were always honest; we could not be sure. We shared our hopes for the project: to develop policy recommendations that would be delivered to policymakers who might be able to change some of the problems they were telling us about. While we worried about reproducing extractive research traditions, most interviewees expressed gratitude at just being listened to. For individuals for whom the results of academic research are often vague at best, we suggest that one result of this study, albeit intangible, happened along the way: in taking an interest in our participants’ lives, in validating their experiences, in soliciting their ideas for change, and in valuing their stories.
This project collected stories in map form and in narrative form. If we got some odd looks from participants when we handed over a set of colored pencils and a blank sketch map, the resulting cartographic representations provide compelling visual evidence for participants’ perceived geography of housing opportunity. Aggregated sketch map results, which count each time a participant indicated a given area on the map, revealed clear clustering in a few key areas, particularly on Chicago’s southwest side in the community areas of Chicago Lawn, Englewood, and West Englewood. It will surprise no one that these three neighborhoods are heavily African-American and have some of the lowest reported incomes in the city. In this sense, we think these aggregate maps tell an important story about how the geography of housing opportunity intersects with other spatial trends like segregation and crime (and which we also analyzed quantitatively, to some extent, though our study also leaves open the possibility for further analysis and study along these lines).
However, a second map, produced by hand from the traced sketch maps, provides a different and, we argue, more human picture of the data. While perhaps less precise, more inscrutable, more artfully illegible, we argue that this hand-drawn map, more than any of the others, is a product of community knowledge and a representation of lived experiences. It tells of lives lived, opportunities passed up, self-segregation, imposed segregation, and a totally messy, complicated city that resists official narratives and cartographies. In contrast to typical policy maps—we can think here of the City of Chicago’s open data portal and its GIS repositories, as well as maps produced by top-down planning groups—this map tells a story of housing opportunity that is relational rather than abstract, lived rather than plotted.
We turned to interview data to provide a fuller picture of why all of these maps looked the way they did. Participants primarily reported that they thought landlords would be less discerning in the areas they indicated on the map. As one participant described, “It’s the poverty-stricken part of Chicago. The slumlords want to get you in. Because of all the gangs and drugs that have affected those areas, very few people want to rent there. They’re losing money by not moving tenants into their places. They’re desperate for rent.” Additionally, some participants cited familiarity with the neighborhoods they selected, highlighting the importance of personal connections and extended social networks that they thought would assist them in a housing search. Others chose areas because people of their racial or ethnic group lived there, so they believed that they would not be discriminated against and/or indicated that they preferred to live in communities that looked like them. Finally, another key reason provided for selecting some areas over others is that participants believed housing would be more affordable in those areas. As many returning residents struggle to secure stable and gainful employment, cost proved an important factor for consideration.
However, despite observing clear clustering in a few key neighborhoods on the south and west sides where participants thought they could find a place to live, participants nevertheless reported that they had experienced rental rejections all over the city. In other words, participants had been rejected from many of the same areas where they or others believed they would have the best chance of finding somewhere to live. There are lots of possible reasons for this, including that more people may be looking for housing in those neighborhoods. While we cannot therefore say anything definitive about rejection rates by neighborhood, this result underscored to us that perception is not always reality, and that even in areas where participants thought they could easily find a place to rent, they or others were being regularly turned away. What emerged was a complicated experiential geography that, more than anything, highlighted just how difficult it is for individuals with criminal records to find anywhere to live, let alone in an area they desire.
Finally, the results provided a messy portrait of how a criminal record not only correlates with, but also compounds, other forms of disadvantage. As one participant put it quite simply, “After being gone for 21 years, of course my credit won’t be as good as everyone else’s.” Indeed, poor credit histories, a natural after-result of many years of incarceration, also correspond to other factors related to and in many cases, preceding incarceration, like low socioeconomic status. Since people of color overwhelmingly comprise the justice-involved population, many participants feared that their criminal record would only build on and reinforce racial stereotypes and prejudices already hindering their housing search. In turn, each factor added up so that many participants expressed extreme frustration, feeling that it was nearly impossible to find a decent, affordable place to live in the city. As a result, justice-involved individuals desperate for housing become extremely vulnerable to predation by landlords, and we heard more than one story of unlawful evictions, unsafe living conditions, or other predatory practices.
In September 2018, BPI and Roosevelt University co-hosted a launch event for our report, which is titled “No Place to Call Home.” The event brought together housing organizers, legal advocates, policymakers from non-profits and government agencies, researchers, reentry service providers, and impacted community members. After a brief presentation about the study, an advocate from Housing Action Illinois led a panel discussion with three formerly incarcerated individuals, who spoke about the relevance of the report to their own experiences. While the results of such events are often somewhat intangible, our team felt it was important to host this kind of a discussion in order to connect decisionmakers directly to the people impacted by punitive policies and to ensure that the stories captured in the report would transcend words written on a page. The launch event highlighted that geographical research in particular remains relevant for elevating community voices, for telling stories in new and compelling ways, for communicating data ‘from below,’ and for connecting people’s everyday, lived experiences to the set of powerful agencies, actors, and policies that shape them. The study was also highlighted in a segment on WBEZ’s Morning Edition.
In terms of policy results, in April 2019, the Just Housing Initiative, a partner coalition that had consulted on the study, successfully campaigned for the Cook County Board of Commissioners to amend the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance to include persons with criminal records (except for sex offenses) as a protected class (Pratt 2019). As one of our direct recommendations, this ordinance is chronically difficult to enforce yet critically important for establishing a formal, legal, anti-discrimination standard. As Don Mitchell writes, “Rights establish an important ideal against which the behavior of the state, capital, and other powerful actors must be measured—and held accountable. They provide an institutionalized framework, no matter how incomplete, within which the goals of social struggle can not only be organized but also attained” (2003, p. 25). Additionally, in the lead-up to Chicago’s mayoral runoff in March 2019, then-candidate (and now mayor-elect) Lori Lightfoot released a platform about addressing the needs of returning residents, in which she cites the “No Place to Call Home” report and adopts several of its recommendations (Lightfoot 2019). In short, we take these to be positive signs that the report is circulating in the world, being read by those in positions of power, providing evidence to fuel ongoing policy campaigns, and hopefully, making a broader impact.
And yet, we are also reflective about the extent to which this project can or cannot be considered a ‘community-engaged’ or ‘participatory’ project. Though definitions of “community” or “participatory” geography differ, we follow those including Askins (2018) in understanding these methodologies not “as a unified approach or neatly defined research methodology,” and Wynne-Jones, North, and Routledge, who in their 2015 piece echo the Participatory Geography Working Group’s call to encourage “openness and fluidity and not to ‘police the boundaries’ around how geographers engage in participatory methods and approaches.” Nevertheless, as a project that aimed to involve communities more directly in policymaking than is typical, we also feel it important to interrogate the extent of that participation and indeed, co-production. In the case of this study, justice-involved individuals inspired, recruited, participated, weighed in, and spoke out, but did not gain access to new software or research skills, nor take on the work of data collection or policy development themselves (though several did consult on the final recommendations). Perhaps this is a trite point by now, but in terms of who benefits from the project, we are also left hoping, for the most part, that this study has any kind of material impact on participants’ lives.
Further, Robinson and Hawthorne (2018) have recently written about the institutional challenges to doing community-engaged geography in a university setting. Our study, however, was unique in that it took place largely outside of a university, spearheaded by a law and policy center. Typically—and as was the case for our project—such organizations are unaccustomed to conducting original research and, even if there is a will to do so, may or may not have the necessary tools and capacities available in-house. Undertaking this study meant going above and beyond the regular workload and was not part of a strategic mission or planned workflow. And yet, despite such structural challenges, we believe that this project reveals a real opportunity for community geography work to take place outside of the academy, to be housed in non-profits, community groups, or government agencies interested in developing policy with and not for communities.
In reflecting on the study, a central theme that emerges is the power of stories. In many cases, the problems documented through the study are problems that policymakers already know about—in many cases, have known about for years. However, we believe that documentation matters; indeed, that such stories demand to be collected and elevated systematically. In Illinois, where the prison system is overcrowded, where recidivism hovers around 43% and costs the state an estimated $13 billion, it can be important to think in numbers (SPAC 2018). However, we argue that individual stories are also needed to mobilize policy action and engender political will.
Stories collected through this study do not portray a homogeneous experience. Far from it. We heard from a man paroled to a homeless shelter where open drug use and violence are a routine part of his everyday surroundings. We heard from a woman who left her last city because her landlord, aware of her criminal record, attempted to coerce her into performing sexual favors for him. We heard from a man who had relatives he could stay with but chose not to because he did not want a parole officer showing up at his family home. We heard from a woman turned down time and time again from Section 8 housing because no landlord would accept her once they learned she had five children. We heard from a man who was evicted from his apartment—the only he could find that would accept him—because, as it turned out, the landlord did not legally own the property. We heard about great facilities that truly support individuals in their transition, and we heard repeatedly about how such facilities are too few and far between. We heard from someone who had only been released within the last month and from someone who had been out of prison for over a decade, both of whom felt that their criminal record followed them to this day. We heard from individuals with a variety of convictions, most of whom felt that it was the mere presence of a criminal record, regardless of the nature of their conviction, that kept them from accessing decent and affordable housing.
If the stories we heard were varied, however, we suggest that they add up to a compelling portrait of how individuals remain systematically locked out of housing opportunities, to the detriment of us all. Such stories help point to specific reforms: policies and interventions that may otherwise be overlooked without the backing of such narrative evidence. They point to opportunities for future research, such as digging into how discrimination against people with criminal records reproduces housing segregation, for example. They also enter into the public record, providing documented evidence of a problem, even if it’s a problem we have known about for a long time. Finally, if the success of the Just Housing Initiative and the new mayor’s priorities are any indication, we hope above all that these stories engender the political will to change so many people’s lives for the better.
The authors thank BPI and Roosevelt University, particularly Charlie Barlow, Laura Nussbaum-Barberena, and Lindsey LaPointe for their support with this work.
Askins, Kye. 2018. “Feminist Geographies and Participatory Action Research: Co-producing Narratives with People and Place.” Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2018.1503159.
Lightfoot, Lori. 2019. “A Plan to Help Returning Citizens Succeed in Chicago.” https://lightfootforchicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/LL_ReturningCitizens_policy.pdf.
Mitchell, Don. 2003. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press.
JustLeadership USA. 2019. “About.” https://justleadershipusa.org/about/.
Pratt, Gregory. 2019. “Cook County Makes it Illegal to Refuse to Show or Rent Property to People with Certain Criminal Records.” Chicago Tribune, April 25, 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-met-housing-ordinance-arrest-record-20190425-story.html.
Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (SPAC). 2018. “The High Cost of Recidivism.” http://www.icjia.state.il.us/spac/pdf/Illinois_Result_First-The_High_Cost_of_Recidivism_2018.pdf
Robinson, Jonnell A. and Timothy L. Hawthorne. 2018. “Making Space for Community-Engaged Scholarship in Geography.” The Professional Geographer 70 (2): 277-283.
Wynne-Jones, Sophie, Peter North and Paul Routledge. 2015. “Practising Participatory Geographies: Potential, Problems and Politics.” Area 47 (3): 218-221.