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Eddie Bocanegra leads READI, a job training program in Chicago. [Photo by Joshua Lott / The Trace]

How We Fix This

A Promising Violence Prevention Program in Chicago Faces a Massive Budget Setback

READI addresses shootings by tackling joblessness, but without public funding, its future is in doubt.

One of Chicago’s largest gun violence prevention programs is facing a $5 million funding loss this year — nearly a third of its overall budget. As private investors slowly pull back, the group’s leader says city officials need to do more.

“The challenge that I face right now is that as much as myself and my staff want to provide services, I can’t do that,” said Eddie Bocanegra, the senior director of the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, or READI Chicago.

READI, launched in 2017, is a violence reduction program that offers paid transitional employment, training, and cognitive behavioral therapy to men at highest risk of being victims and perpetrators of the city’s gun violence. More than 600 men have entered the program. A preliminary evaluation of READI’s effectiveness shows promising results. 

READI’s financial dilemma arrives at a moment of staggering unemployment and a workforce reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic. Chicago is also facing an increase in violence that’s now on pace with 2016, when shootings and homicides spiked to levels not seen in decades. Bocanegra says the uptick has claimed the lives of five READI’s participants, who were shot and killed in a span of five weeks earlier this summer. 

Nearly all of READI’s $15 million budget comes from private donors. Its benefactors have made clear for years that their support can’t last forever, and that their goal is for city and state officials to take over funding for gun violence reduction programs that show promise. While the city’s other major violence prevention groups told The Trace they are not confronting budget problems like READI’s, most are working to secure more public dollars.

Bocanegra is frustrated by the setbacks, and worries that the future of the program is at stake if he isn’t able to fill the budget gap. “Philanthropy has done their part,” he said. “The city has to step up.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot awarded nearly $8 million for violence prevention services earlier this year, and allocated a portion of the city’s coronavirus relief funds to the efforts. In July, county officials threw $5 million toward gun violence prevention, too. Most of the funding has so far gone to victim services and street outreach, which focuses primarily on building community relationships and trying to prevent shootings before they happen. Bocanegra said he hopes those dollars will be made available to programs like READI, and added that he is pursuing all available public funding opportunities.

“We are focused on building on the successes of last year’s investments and ensuring it reflects the needs of our residents,” the Mayor’s Office said in a statement. The city will release its 2021 budget forecast next week, as Chicago faces a nearly billion-dollar budget deficit that will likely balloon because of the pandemic. 

Gillian Darlow, the president of the Polk Bros. Foundation, and one of READI’s funders, said the recent funding commitments by city and county governments were a step in the right direction, but acknowledged that anti-violence programs still need more financial support. “I see all of those entities’ budget contracts, and sources of revenue threatened, and I don’t know how that’s going to play out,” she said.

Darlow says her foundation is sustaining its funding for violence prevention efforts this year. The same goes for the MacArthur Foundation, one of the city’s largest philanthropic donors.

Earlier this summer, Bocanegra laid off nearly two dozen of his 100 staff members and shortened participants’ time in the program to 12 months. READI’s focus has also shifted from securing direct work experience for the men it serves to online training and increased therapy.

“Our service is to place people in jobs, [and] up until about a month ago, the majority of [the job sites] did not allow anybody to come into their work site,” Bocanegra said. He says social distancing requirements have made providing the participants transportation to work tough, and full 8-hour work days aren’t guaranteed. 

The challenges READI faces at an organizational level have trickled down to at least one of its participants. Anthony Chestnut, 41, joined READI in 2018 following a two-decade prison sentence. 

Since graduating from the program last month, Chestnut hasn’t been able to find permanent employment. “My situation is a little bittersweet because the pandemic happened during my transition,” he said. “A lot of stuff was kind of messed up for me. I know once the world opens back up, I’m going to be OK.”

Despite the situation, Chestnut said he’s thankful for the work and therapy READI provided.

Max Kapustin, an assistant professor at Cornell University and former research director at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, is part of a team of academics evaluating READI’s performance. He says the program offers a unique approach, and gathering evidence to see whether it works could be key in helping decrease the city’s gun violence. 

“If READI were to disappear tomorrow, not only would it stop helping a bunch of people in Chicago but it would also limit the possibility of generating enough evidence that there is another way to reduce violence, besides the police and the justice system,” said Kapustin. “If we’re going to talk about defunding the police and reallocating money, READI is exactly designed to do that if it’s proven to be effective.”

The evaluation that he and his colleagues are conducting won’t be completed for a couple of years, but preliminary data indicates that the program seems to be working, particularly when it comes to finding the right participants, keeping them engaged, and reducing their risk of gun violence. A summary of the early findings shared with The Trace found that men who participated in the program’s orientation portion were nearly 40 percent less likely to be injured or killed in a shooting. 

“What are we going to do in five, 10 years when there’s another spike in violence and we’re looking around for solutions to work?” Kapustin said. “Unless we add to that stock of knowledge, my worry is that when we’re back in the same situation — which we seem to find ourselves in often — we’re not going to be very informed.”