In July 2005, 22-year-old Nicolas Hernandez went to a block party in Logan Square with his older brother. Around midnight, they saw a few men who had been kicked out earlier. They realized the strangers had guns and started running. Hernandez noticed a little girl crying and helped her find safety in a nearby home. 

As he stepped outside to find his brother, Hernandez saw the flash of a gun and fell wounded to the ground. He knew he was losing strength and crawled underneath some nearby steps. As he went in and out of consciousness, friends and family urged him to stay awake. The next thing he remembered, he was underneath a bright hospital light, where he learned he would live. The bullet had traveled cleanly through his body.

Hernandez had always assumed that if he kept to himself, he would be OK. “Why me? I don’t live this lifestyle,” he recalled thinking. “This can happen to anybody.”

Like Hernandez, many survivors of gun violence are unexpectedly thrown into a world of recovery, grief, and unanticipated expenses. The Illinois Crime Victim Compensation Program uses state and federal funding to reimburse victims of violent crime and their families. But in 2021, an investigation by The Trace found that the program struggled to reach survivors, approve applicants, and reimburse them quickly. 

The following year, a criminal justice reform bill broadened the rules of who can apply, increased the total possible reimbursement from $27,000 to $45,000 per person, and extended the application deadline from two to five years after a crime. This year’s legislative session may bring further changes to make the program more accessible.

Yet, during The Trace’s recent survivor storytelling project, an initiative that helped victims write about their experiences, participants said they were still struggling to receive funding. Using records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, The Trace analyzed nearly 23,000 claims between January 2018 and November 2023, almost half of which came from Chicago, to see whether the program had improved. The Trace looked at the outcome of claims opened within each calendar year, not the year when they were closed, to assess the timeliness of the program and how legislative changes might have affected application results. 

We found:

  • On average, approved applicants are receiving funding within nine months instead of 15 months, and are getting $6,600 instead of $4,500.
  • The denial gap between Black and white applicants has dropped from a little over 13 percentage points to less than 7. 
  • Barriers like denials for failure to cooperate with law enforcement have almost been eliminated.
  • Even as fewer applicants are being denied, 45 percent down from 59 percent, fewer applicants are receiving funds, down to roughly 27 percent compared to 39 percent.
  • There are still many open applications, with almost 30 percent of applicants waiting for answers.  
  • The program is still falling short of reaching eligible survivors, with roughly one in 16 eligible victims in Chicago applying.

More than a month after The Trace asked for an interview, Jamey Dunn-Thomason, the press secretary for Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, said Raoul was not available for comment, but that he is committed to reducing violence by supporting victims. Raoul has “initiated victim-centered changes, both through legislation and internal policy, to eliminate needless roadblocks,” Dunn-Thomason said.

Program Continues To Miss Eligible Survivors

In Chicago, between 2018 and 2023, there were over 179,000 direct victims of violent crime, and many more eligible relatives and witnesses, but just over 11,000 applicants to the compensation program. Hernandez learned about the program from a colleague and received roughly $10,000 for medical expenses. But he had no idea how deeply the shooting had affected him until 2018, when he witnessed a car crash. In therapy, he realized that he had not yet processed the trauma of being shot. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his therapist recommended retirement disability. 

Art has helped Nicolas Hernandez to process the trauma of the shooting he survived in 2005. (Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace)

After learning of his diagnosis, he contacted the Attorney General’s Office to reopen his case and get mental health services, but was met with pushback because over a decade had passed. With the help of a social worker from BUILD, a violence prevention organization, he received almost $1,000 in additional compensation for therapy, but it wasn’t enough to cover the $14,000 two-year treatment plan his therapist recommended. He had to seek more affordable counseling services from the city.

“You’ve got to think about the people that’s filling out these forms,” said Pamela Bosley, co-founder of Purpose Over Pain, an organization that helps survivors. “That’s a place where you thought you would never be.” Data between 2018 and 2023 shows that assault and murder/homicide made up almost 70 percent of the reasons for why people applied.

Advocates and survivors said they applauded the extension of the application period from three to five years. Many people, Bosley said, can’t focus on their financial needs during the initial throes of grief.

Celeste Campbell, a crime victims assistant at the organization and a survivor herself, found success navigating the program and now guides other parents through it. Campbell’s son, Matthew Rodgers Jr., 24 — a rapper known as “Young Affishal” — was shot and killed after a performance in Wicker Park on November 20, 2016.

A year after his death, Campbell received reimbursement for funeral expenses, wage losses, counseling, and medication. But many people, she said, don’t know what’s eligible for reimbursement because they often learn about it through funeral homes and think a funeral is the only thing they can get covered. 

Some don’t know that they might be considered a victim themselves. Regardless of citizenship status, anyone who lives in the same household as someone who was victimized and those who witnessed a crime can also apply. A study showed that, by the time they turned 40, half of Chicagoans had witnessed a shooting.

In June 2021, Hernandez became a victim again when he heard a shooting while at a community meeting in Humboldt Park. Hernandez hurried to administer first aid to the young man who’d been shot. He wanted to make sure the victim didn’t feel alone and assured him that it wasn’t his fault.

Hernandez later contacted the program’s help line and told them how the ordeal had triggered his PTSD, but was told that in order to get help, his name needed to be on the police report. After facing some initial confusion from police, he obtained the report and received a claim number last June. But almost seven months after he was told the claim was being investigated, he still hasn’t received any updates.

Without Relief Survivors Are Faced With a Pile of Bills

Violence recovery specialists at hospitals encourage victims to apply for compensation, said Tanya Zakrison, a professor of surgery and trauma surgeon at the University of Chicago’s Level I Trauma Center, but sometimes victims lose trust when they don’t immediately get help.

“There’s a spiraling cascade that puts people at severely increased risk of economic hardship, bankruptcies and poverty, and then future firearm injury,” Zakrison said. “Crime Victim Compensation has the potential to mitigate those effects.”

In 2022, a legislative change required the attorney general to send an award determination to the Court of Claims, which then must provide the applicant with a compensation determination letter within 28 days. Data showed that on average in 2022, it took almost nine months for approved applicants to receive funding, down from the almost 15 months it took in 2018. A streamlined process, according to the state’s 2022 performance report, helped.

Still, many are left in limbo for months. Of the reports filed between January 2018 and November 2023, almost 30 percent remain open. Some cases take several months or years to close, which could explain more open cases in recent years.

Because people are left waiting, fewer than three in 10 applicants received any money in 2022. But those who did receive funds, on average, received $6,600 in 2022, up from $4,500 in 2018. 

Making the Program More Accessible

Overall, survivors are facing fewer barriers for accessing money. In 2022, the program removed requirements to cooperate with law enforcement, added medical care as proof of victimization, and removed criminal history as an automatic disqualifier. Currently, though, a police report number is still required. Denials based on “failure to cooperate with law enforcement” have almost been eliminated. 

These changes have helped narrow racial disparities. In 2018, Black applicants were denied compensation at a little over 13 percentage points higher than white applicants, but by 2022, that difference dropped to less than 7. They are “small changes,” but not trivial, said Jeremy Levine, an associate professor of organizational studies and sociology at the University of Michigan. Forty-one percent of crime victim applicants are Black, compared to white applicants, who make up 20 percent.

Overall, denials have fallen from 59 percent in 2018 to 46 percent in 2022. Levine is studying different crime compensation programs across the U.S. Illinois stands out, he said, in a denial category called “failure to substantiate,” which means that an applicant had a valid reason to apply, but insufficient documentation. Denials for this reason have decreased from 55 percent in 2018 to 48 percent in 2022.

Survivors Helping Survivors

Recent legislative changes are helping those who apply to the compensation program, but thousands don’t know it exists — leading experts to believe that the state has an outreach problem. 

In 2022, Dunn-Thomason said the Attorney General’s Office hired an outreach specialist to meet with various police districts and community service agencies in Chicago. Dunn-Thomason also mentioned that the office highlighted the program through several outreach events.

“We need to acknowledge that being affected by firearm violence is a failure of municipal, state, and federal government,” Zakrison said. “All human beings in this country have the right to go to school and not worry about being shot — they have the right to live a life of dignity and peace.”

Many who assist survivors are survivors themselves, like Hernandez. After his experience, he felt an overwhelming responsibility to help others. He does so every day at Casa Hernandez, a volunteer-run community space and free store in Humboldt Park. If people have their basic needs met, he said, they might not feel compelled to resort to violence to survive.

But Hernandez is quickly burning out, wondering, “How much trauma can I keep absorbing?” He knows that he’ll eventually have to step away to fully tend to his own mental health. He wants to spend more time creating art with his dog and cats by his side. It’s therapeutic, he said. Some pieces are lighthearted — portraits of superheroes and friends — but others are darker, hinting at the long tail of violence that continues to haunt him.

Data editor Olga Pierce contributed reporting.