This article appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on August 8, 2019.
Mustafa Hawthorne tosses a spare house key into the air. “Please don’t lose it. You need to get it on a keychain.”
Talib Garner snatches it and stuffs it into one of the socks he wears with sandals. “It won’t get lost.”
The men have an easy rapport, despite the difference in their ages. Hawthorne, born Steven Hawthorne, is 52, and Garner is 25. Both lived intensely hard lives before winding up at this red brick bungalow on a quiet Southwest Side street that serves as a unique refuge for those seeking shelter from street violence.
Their housemates include a young man from Englewood whose mentor was shot and killed and a 24-year-old man from Roseland whose former principal found him this place after his best friend was slain in 2017.
“This is a safe house,” explains Hawthorne, who manages the home. “The house is designed to give them time to breathe.”
And maybe the break they need, something Hawthorne didn’t get when he was young. At 16, Hawthorne shot and killed two men and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was released in 2017, after serving 33 years, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such sentences for juveniles was unconstitutional.
Hawthorne’s job at the house is to enforce curfews, generally keep the peace and offer any advice he can to people like Garner.
Garner was born and raised in Little Village. He says he saw two people shot dead outside his house when he was 4, could load a gun by the time he was 6 and was pulled into gang activity when he was around 14. He joined the Latin Kings street gang after losing his brother to gang violence.
“If I stay in the ‘hood, I’m going to kill someone,” Garner says. “Or someone will kill me.”
The men live together through a pilot program that houses young men in need of emergency lodging, a safe place to land, somewhere they can plan a future and maybe line up a job.
In other circumstances, they would have little to do with one another. But together under one roof, there is some sense of stability. Some slip back to their old lives but return after an arrest.
The house is furnished with leather couches, a dark wood dining table and a coffee table adorned with a vase of flowers. The men watch Hulu and Netflix on a large flat-screen television. They play “Call of Duty” on an Xbox console in the basement. They sometimes squabble about small messes around the house.
The young men are referred by outreach and caseworkers. They fill out an application and undergo an interview to see if they are a good fit. A bed or two is kept open for emergencies.
There is a constant waitlist.
‘You’re up next’
The idea for this safe house took hold with a chance encounter at a funeral.
Early in 2017, Jason Barrett was gunned down on the Far South Side by someone who stepped out of a silver SUV. The 24-year-old had been featured in the CNN series “Chicagoland” a few years earlier as someone who was hoping for a second chance and got help from his former principal at Fenger High School, Liz Dozier.
At Barrett’s wake, Dozier saw a young man lingering by the door of the funeral home. He was a former student and one of Barrett’s best friends. He had not yet made it inside the room where his friend’s body lay.
He was there when Barrett was killed. He knew he might be next. Dozier reconnected with him that day and they exchanged numbers.
“There were a couple of other people that had gotten killed up to Jason,” Dozier said. “You’re up next, let’s just keep this real,” she told him.
Dozier said she had helped other teenagers and young men escape the streets. Sometimes it meant helping parents send them out of town to stay with family members.
But in this case, the young man needed to get out of Roseland but had nowhere to go.
After leaving Fenger, Dozier had founded Chicago Beyond, a nonprofit that invests in organizations that “are fighting for all youth to achieve their fullest human potential,” according to its website.
Searching for housing opportunities for men like Barrett’s friend, the nonprofit teamed up with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network that works on the South and Southwest sides.
IMAN already provided housing for men reentering society after serving a prison term, but it did not supply shelter for high-risk youth. Together, the two groups bought a small bungalow on the Southwest Side. It opened two years ago.
The house is funded by Chicago CRED, an organization founded by former Education Secretary and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, and Chicago Beyond, which uses funding from private backers.
The groups are now working on the next phase of the pilot program: a safe home for a whole family so the men don’t have to leave children and other loved ones behind.
‘Certain things stick with you’
Rami Nashashibi, executive director of IMAN, remembers one of the first young men who lived in the home. He had barely survived a shooting on the West Side.
“For the first two to three months in the house, he was literally recovering his health,” Nashashibi said.
Earlier this year, the organization took on a young man after a man he looked up to as a mentor was killed. The young man had been a high-ranking gang member in Englewood but was a recent graduate of IMAN’s job program and was working to broker peace in the neighborhood, Nashashibi said.
The young man’s father pleaded with him to get him away from the block. “It was only a matter of time that he was drawn into the retaliatory circle,” Nashashibi said.
Now, living in the house, the man is working toward his GRE and participating in a weekend program that offers credits at City Colleges of Chicago.
One of his housemates is the man Dozier spotted at the funeral. He has lived in the house on and off since it was established. He recently returned after spending time in Cook County Jail for a misdemeanor domestic battery conviction.
On a recent evening at the house, the man tossed a basketball at a hoop as the sun sunk in the sky. He still struggles with memories of the day Barrett died.
“Certain things stick with you,” he said.
He has some goals, like learning a trade. But mostly he is thinking in the short term, like saving some money so he can live on his own. He hopes to build a life away from the streets.
“I kind of feel like I ain’t going to give up on that,” he said. He still worries about his safety and did not want to be named.
‘I was tired of watching people die’
Garner was born with the name Gregory but changed it to Talib when he converted to Islam. He is using his time at the house to plot his way forward.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office recently dropped a felony cocaine possession charge against him, giving him a fresh start. He visits his 4-year-old son and hopes to someday have shared custody.
His life now is markedly different than three years ago when he was at his lowest. He had spent the Memorial Day weekend in jail and had sunk into a depression after years of trauma.
When he was 4, his son’s age, he saw two men get shot and killed outside of his house. The men had been at a gang meeting at his father’s house. They were friendly with him, sometimes watching television with him. He remembers his uncle grabbing him from the window and his father dragging the bodies out of his view.
“It plays in my head,” he said. “Sometimes I dream about it.”
He recalls learning how to cook crack cocaine and load a gun at 6 years old and remembers spending days only eating small caramel candies. “I had four rotted teeth after that.”
He has good memories from school. He loved social studies, especially the story of Paul Revere’s ride. He gravitates toward learning about civil rights and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.
Garner’s aunt eventually gained custody of him and moved him and a sister to Aurora. But as a teen, he would tell his aunt he was going to a party in the suburbs, and instead, drive back to the Little Village neighborhood where he was comfortable.
After his brother was shot and killed by his own gang, Garner joined the rival Latin Kings. He attended what seemed like a long string of funerals.
Then one day, it was too much. He was sitting on a swing at a Southwest Side park after being released from jail and saw a man with a kufi, a cap worn by some Muslim men. He asked where the nearest mosque was and encountered IMAN.
Eventually, he secured a spot in the house. “I was tired of watching people die,” he said.
Now, he is focused on building a better life for his son, who lives in Villa Park. He’s glad his son lives outside the city, though he wants the boy to someday know how he is privileged to be raised differently than he was.
He has rough patches, days when the old neighborhood seems to call him back, and days when pent-up anger builds. He feels he wasn’t protected as a child.
But he feels hopeful, too, finding peace in his relationship with his son. “I always wanted a family.”