The Westside Health Authority was founded in 1988 and one of its original divisions was the Workforce Re-entry program. Through six locations, WHA provides on-site services for ex-offenders looking for work. Roger Ehmen, WHA’s director for this program, says that the program is in-depth and emphasizes, “We address the outer and inner man and woman.”
The external issues might start with the most basic of needs. Many ex-offenders need food, identification, clothing, or help with enrolling in food stamp programs or the Affordable Care Act. For most, finding a job is a goal that requires not only those basics, but job training and placement. External care might also include dental and eye care.
Just as important Ehmen stresses is the internal work. “They also need counseling in many cases. We offer on-site anger management counseling, mental health care, domestic violence therapy and help with substance abuse.”
WHA also offers cognitive behavioral therapy. Ehmen says this is important because while programs eventually end, movements do not. He cites the need for a short term and long term approach, providing an example of a participant who might currently be labelled as a gang banger but wants to make that long term transition to a family man.
According to Ehmen, WHA’s approach is working. “Our recidivism rate has been under 10 percent for four years. For Cook County Jail, that recidivism rate is 62.7 percent. Because we address the inner and the outer, our rate is lower.”
As the federally-funded, official re-entry center for the City of Chicago, WHA’s Workforce Re-entry program is able to provide a wide-range of services to participants. Knowing that no agency can provide all needed services, it partners with 65 other agencies on the West Side.
Even prior to offenders being released, WHA works with correctional centers, going into the centers three times a month for pre-release orientations to help offenders begin to recognize what their needs will be once they are released. After prison, ex-offenders face a variety of barriers from lack of a high school diploma to inability to pay for public transportation.
WHA partners with Malcolm X College to conduct on-site, no-cost GED classes. Because transportation costs are a major barrier to ex-offenders seeking help, WHA offers a case-management on wheels, with an outreach coordinator travelling to transitional houses. On Dec. 1, the program will open a transitional residence of its own. For those convicted of low-level crimes, the home will offer 90 days of transition and access to all of WHA’s services. WHA works with over 200 employers on job placement, often offering on-site interviews.
Through other programming, such as WHA’s housing program, ex-offenders are considered part of the solution. WHA works with banks on foreclosed homes, hiring ex-offenders to rehab the homes, a program that has widespread benefits according to Ehmen.
“We’re taking blighted properties, making them over, giving felons construction skills and helping someone who couldn’t normally afford a home. It’s increasing homeownership in our community, and as a result, more employers are returning to our community.”