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One man’s re-entry charts a path for more formerly incarcerated people to buy homes

Anthony stands in the backyard of his new home. Anthony is now the second First Followers client who has purchased a home after returning from prison.

CHAMPAIGN —  Anthony spent about half of his life in prison and just got out last year.

It was a huge adjustment because so much had changed in the decades Anthony was incarcerated. 

“I hadn’t seen a cell phone in almost 30 years,” Anthony said. “Now in this new world, you can’t function without a cell phone.”

Anthony’s full name and some identifying details have been left out of this story because he worries he or his family will experience harassment; studies have documented discrimination and other harm toward formerly incarcerated people. 

Anthony counts himself lucky because he was transferred to the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Program to finish out the rest of his 25-year sentence for murder. While there, Anthony was connected with First Followers, a non-profit organization that helps formerly incarcerated people re-enter the Champaign community. 

The day he was released, First Followers volunteers and staff helped Anthony move into FirstSteps, the group’s transitional residence for men coming home from prison. He spent the past year there, up until he purchased a home in Champaign County and moved in during the fall of 2023. 

Anthony defied the odds by becoming a homeowner. Contact with the criminal justice system makes it more difficult to buy — and keep — a home, according to research from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

On the day he moved in, after boxes and furniture were unloaded from the truck, Anthony said people who are formerly incarcerated want a normal life and a place to call home. They just need the chance to make that happen.

“We want to have a chance,” Anthony said. “We want to be able to prove ourselves.” 

Anthony is grateful for the support he got from First Followers, and they’re just as thankful for what they’ve learned from him. His story has taught First Followers some important lessons, helping them fine-tune their approach to help clients find a stable, long-term place to live.

First Followers co-founder James Kilgore says the group is now developing a new model for helping clients own their own homes. Anthony is the second client who has purchased a house after leaving FirstSteps. 

“This has also been something new for us,” Kilgore said. “He’s taught us about how we can do this and I think we can now do this with some other people who may be in a similar situation.”

Among the challenges to home ownership for formerly incarcerated people: finding a bank that’s willing to give them a mortgage, Kilgore said. Now that staff members at one local bank have helped Anthony, they’re more familiar with the process. He’s optimistic that the bank will be more open to helping additional First Followers clients in the future.

One reason Anthony has been so successful after incarceration is because of the support he received at Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Program, Kilgore said. The program helps prepare currently incarcerated people for re-entry before they leave prison. 

Not everyone in prison receives this kind of help. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, there are 29 correctional facilities in the state of Illinois — and only two re-entry centers

These centers, along with the re-entry programs they connect people to before their release, play a crucial role in helping individuals quickly secure jobs and housing after prison, Kilgore said. 

“When people are coming out, they’re just running into a brick wall,” Kilgore said. “They sit and spin their wheels for weeks before they can even apply for a job because they don’t have an ID.” 

Without these resources, Anthony says people who are formerly incarcerated are left to navigate challenging systems alone. 

Anthony’s brother helped him move into his new home in October. The two are close — and he said Anthony’s grown so much. 

“Someone could look at this and almost think it’s unbelievable. But he doesn’t back down to adversity,” his brother said. “He knows how to walk in peace with adversity now.” 

This opportunity at a second chance at life has made Anthony eager to enjoy every second in his new home. 

“I make use of all opportunities presented to me, because I wasted so much time, my life,” Anthony said. “I can’t waste any more time.” 

Farrah Anderson is a journalist and student at the University of Illinois. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa.

Farrah Anderson

Farrah Anderson

Farrah Anderson is a student at the University of Illinois studying journalism. At Illinois Public Media, Anderson works as a general assignment reporter and produces and hosts the 217 Today podcast.

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