(Chicago) – It is, to an unknowing eye, just a trailer. A mobile unit. Nothing special.
But the life transformations that begin inside the Supportive Release Center (SRC) are anything but ordinary. It is here where men who’ve been in and out of jail—affected by substance use, mental health issues, medical concerns, homelessness, or a combination of all of these—find a place to pause, to feel safe, and take initial steps toward rebuilding their lives.
By the winter of 2018, Dwayne had been incarcerated dozens of times. As he sat in the discharge area of the Cook County Jail waiting to be released, he was “about ready to get my drink on. I wanted to get my swag on.” But nonetheless, as he listened to a TASC care coordinator talk about the Supportive Release Center, he perceived an offer of something new.
“I had lost my wife, I couldn’t go back home, I didn’t have a place to stay, and TASC was over there talking to these people (other detainees at the jail)….I knew I was tired of living the life I was living. I was tired of hurting myself, tired of hurting my family, tired of hurting people that wanted to help me put my life back together,” Dwayne recounted. “But when I came over here (to the SRC), there was a door that opened up for me.”
An Innovative Model
A partnership between TASC, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Heartland Alliance Health, and the University of Chicago Health Lab, along with generous donors, the SRC offers a brief overnight stay and linkage to services for men leaving the Cook County Jail who are dealing with substance use and mental health conditions, homelessness, and other complex issues. Since its launch in 2017 through February 2019, the SRC has served nearly 1,000 individuals, offering a critical and timely intervention to break cycles of incarceration for vulnerable individuals.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart (left) listening to Dwayne, whose participation in the SRC—including care coordination by TASC and intensive case management by Heartland Alliance Health—sparked a series of positive life changes. Dwayne is now in recovery, employed, and reconnected to his family.
“For the majority of people—people who’ve made mistakes—they need pathways, they need help, they need people to assist them,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
at a February 25 event recognizing the value of the SRC. “They’ve been removed from society either for a period of time because of being incarcerated, or the community they came from had very little resources, if any. And so, it makes no sense whatsoever to set people up to fail by having them in programs in jails and prisons and then, frankly, spewing them out into the community with no type of help whatsoever.”
“By intervening at a time when individuals are especially vulnerable, the Supportive Release Center can help change the course of people’s lives,” said TASC President Pam Rodriguez. TASC administers the SRC, from engagement at the jail to transportation to service linkages and care coordination. “The partnership with the Sheriff’s department is really critical to make all of this work,” she said, also thanking Heartland and the University of Chicago, as well as the foundations that have supported the SRC’s success.
Dart praised TASC, Heartland, and the University of Chicago for their “will and drive” in bringing the SRC to fruition. “It’s because of you folks that this is happening, and that’s as simple as that,” he said. “We could we go through each and every one of these individuals whose lives you’ve touched and how you’ve turned their lives around. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Putting the program innovation in perspective, Dart added, “This is not something that naturally occurs anywhere else in the country.” He pointed out that the SRC is not only heart-driven, but logically driven too. Along with its array of direct services, it also is undergoing rigorous evaluation by the University of Chicago.
"What we can say right now is of the nearly 1,000 men who’ve come to the SRC...they’re an incredibly vulnerable group." — Dr. David Meltzer, Director, University of Chicago Health Lab
“We are reaching men who are really in need,” said Dr. David Meltzer, director of the University of Chicago Health Lab, and
leader of the research team studying the SRC model. He noted that 90 percent of
SRC participants have substance use and/or mental health issues or related
vulnerabilities, 80 percent have unstable housing, and half have active medical issues. “We’re hopeful that when we have final data in a year that we’ll be able to prove to everyone in a position to make these decisions that this isn’t just a program that should be studied, but hopefully really a program that should be maintained, and hopefully eventually spread elsewhere.”
Robin Moore, administrator of TASC’s services at the SRC, explained how the program works, beginning with conversations at the jail, followed by transportation to the SRC for men who choose to take advantage of the program.
Once on-site, participants get an overview of the space, said Moore. “They’re offered the opportunity to have something to eat, the opportunity to have a shower, and have their clothing washed, be reconnected back to their family and make those solid phone calls so that people know that they’re out and that they’re safe and what their next step is going to be.”
The goal, she said, is to help individuals who have just left the jail to feel comfortable, “so that when they meet our licensed care coordinator they’re able to go and have that solid, honest conversation about their needs and get their services put in place.” Services may include Medicaid enrollment assistance, continuity of prescribed medications, assistance in getting identification, and linkages and transportation to services such as mental health and substance use treatment, medical providers, employment services, and supportive housing.
TASC care coordinators
also work closely with Heartland Alliance Health, facilitating connections for
individuals who have been identified as being homeless or at risk of
“We provide services around housing, behavioral health, primary care, and substance use services. The key to the work is meeting them where they’re at,” added Joan Liautaud, senior director of clinical operations at Heartland Alliance Health. “We give people what they want at the moment, which is usually practical items, until they actually want what they need.”
Reconnecting with Family
Along with shutting the revolving door of incarceration, the SRC helps people
achieve stability and a chance to rebuild their lives.
And that is what Dwayne has done.
You see this ring on my finger? I’ve got my wife back today,” he proclaimed. In the past year since coming through the SRC, and with the steady guidance of his case worker at Heartland, Dwayne has left the streets, embarked on a journey of recovery from addiction, and received care for longstanding health issues. And he has reconnected with his family.
“I’m thankful today. I’m glad today. I’m happy today, and I’m feeling good. Not only about myself, but my family feels good towards me.” Dwayne described the pain of having long ago stolen a television from his father. “He wouldn’t talk to me. I hadn’t seen him in 25 years. And that’s one of the reasons why I kept getting high—because I was ate up with hurt about what I did to my dad.”
One day, Dwayne got a call from someone encouraging him to see his father. “On Christmas day. I go see my dad. My dad is blind, he’s 81 years old. I knock on the door, he opens his arms. ‘Son, I love you so much, I missed you, I’m sorry.’ When he said that, I said, ‘I’m sorry, I love you, dad.’”
Celebrating the Supportive Release Center – Back, l. to r.: Pam Rodriguez, TASC president; Robin Moore, TASC administrator; Dwayne, past SRC participant; Shirley Washington, TASC care coordinator. Middle: Pamela Ewing, TASC supervisor. Bottom: Evette Bailey, TASC care coordinator.
Intense with emotion, Dwayne recounted having visited his father’s bank recently to withdraw money to buy clothes for his sister. His father had handed his bank card to his son, “and that’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Dwayne marveled. “My dad could trust me. And I’m thankful for that.”
Rodriguez pointed out that Dwayne’s story challenges “one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating myths regarding people who have substance use disorders, people who were involved in the criminal justice system. And that is that they don’t have family who care about them, and that they don’t care about their families. And that’s not true. There may be breakage in those relationships, but everybody has somebody who cares about them, and everybody cares about someone else.”
“Yes they do,” affirmed Dwayne. “Yes they do.”
Dwayne explains the plight of many who are incarcerated. “There’s a lot of people, they don’t know what they need to do to get their lives back together. They don’t know what they need to do to get back on track in society…. There’s always some good guys, they’re looking for some hope. They’re looking for a chance, who to talk to, where to go, how to get life back together, how can I get back reunited with my family, how can I get a job?”
The Supportive Release Center opens up these opportunities. For many, like Dwayne, it’s the first real chance they’ve felt to turn things around.
"When [participants] step in these doors, everything washes away."
- Pamela Ewing, TASC Clinical Supervisor.
Watch 3-min. video on the Supportive Release Center to learn more.