How one family drew a one-strike investigation

Around this time last year, Patricia Reed, her husband Albert Sims and I were catching up on the third floor of Cook County’s criminal courthouse when she filled me in on her moving plans.

I was working on a piece about 17-year-olds in the adult felony system at the time and was lucky enough to bump into the couple during one of their grandson Derrick’s earliest court hearings. The Reed’s didn’t have $5,000 to bail Derrick out. So for nearly four months he sat in Cook County jail as his drug case was continued month after month.

Few defendants had family members show up for the status hearings. Derrick was one of the lucky ones; neither Ms. Reed nor her husband ever missed. Either did I.

Some days we would wait for hours before the bailiff would walk Derrick to the bench. We got to know each other in the downtime. It turned out that Derrick wasn’t the only one in the household in trouble with the law. At 17, his brother Javon has been convicted of two felonies. The first was for an aggravated battery. He’s currently serving two to four years for the second offense, drug dealing. Under the Chicago Housing Authority’s zero tolerance policy -- known as one-strike – the entire family was evicted from their West Side apartment as a result.

The family had originally moved into the apartment in 2007. Reed, her husband and her grandsons—both of whom they’ve raised since birth—were given an apartment in the CHA courtyard building on Fifth Avenue in North Lawndale. She couldn’t believe her luck because she had been on a public housing waitlist for nearly two decades.

People around their new building nicknamed it “The Hole” because it was a depressing place that stands virtually alone on a block of vacant lots where drug dealing ran rampant. Some guys who lived over there had a rap song about the conditions.

Derrick was arrested during a raid on the building in spring of 2010. Police charged him with tossing a bag filled with ecstasy and marijuana as he saw officers running toward the building. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.

The Reed’s eviction got me thinking about how many families were losing their apartments based on the action of one person in the household. Getting an answer wasn’t easy.

Regular readers may recall that back in September, I blogged about my struggle to get one-strike data from the CHA. It took another five months before I had the records in hand. I would probably still be waiting if I hadn’t appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s office, which leaned on the local housing authority to make the information public.

Last week, we rolled out our investigation, which also appeared in The New York Times, into how the one-strike policy is playing out here in Chicago.

Turns out that the Reed’s case isn’t so unique. We found that heads of household are rarely the source of trouble. And more than a quarter of all leaseholders facing one-strike eviction over the past six years were targeted because a teenager living in their home was arrested. What might come as a surprise is the number of people who were actually convicted of the charges behind the cases.

Derrick was ultimately convicted. All told he spent eight months of what should have been his junior year of high school in the adult county lockup. He was released a month ago and his schizophrenia has taken a turn for the worse, Reed tells me. Derrick’s back at home with his grandparents again. They’ve relocated to a two-bedroom, private market apartment off of Jackson Boulevard in the Austin neighborhood.  After three years, the family could reapply for the CHA’s housing waitlist. Until then, they’re barred from receiving any subsidies from the agency.

The one-strike eviction may have taken Derrick and his family off the 3600 block of West Fifth Avenue, but the drug dealing continues. There were six narcotics-related arrests so far in 2011, compared with four during the last six months of 2010, police records show. Assaults and batteries have jumped, too; 11 incidents were logged so far this year compared with two in the latter part of 2010.

Neither Sims, who’s an out-of-work butcher, nor Reed, a home healthcare aide, ever made excuses for their grandsons’ behavior. They’ve never accepted that Derrick or Javon are victims of a rough neighborhood who buckled under peer pressure. In their eyes, drug dealing is unacceptable. Period.

That’s, in part, why they took their one-strike eviction in stride. Though, Reed did consider fighting the case -- albeit briefly. Ultimately, “I just said, ‘Forget it,’” she tells me. “A legal aid lawyer said I didn’t stand a chance anyway.”


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