Zakiyyah Seifullah accepted a plea deal for a crime she didn’t commit. The Chicago resident couldn’t afford an attorney and, to her, a conviction registry sounded better than prison. When she went to register, she was told her home was in a banishment zone and had one hour to move. Now, she is experiencing homelessness and separated from her children.
“At what point are you really free?” she said. “America says you make punishment equal to the crime. This is a lifelong punishment. It’s almost like a legal form of double jeopardy.”
Seifullah told her story in a Zoom webinar, hosted by One Book One Northwestern, on Thursday night with other members of the Chicago 400, a group of 400-500 people who are on public conviction registries and are experiencing homelessness. They were joined by Laurie Jo Reynolds and Anna Reosti from the Chicago 400 Alliance, who help support members of the Chicago 400, and fight conviction registries and housing banishment.
Northwestern students Chelsea Guzman, Diaz Mathis and Arianna Ponce interned with the Chicago 400 Alliance over the summer and started the webinar with a presentation explaining the impact of conviction registries. Individuals on conviction registries cannot live within 500 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and daycares, they said. In addition, those experiencing homelessness have to register in person with local law enforcement weekly where they may face waits of up to five hours, forcing them to miss work and making housing even more unattainable.
“Most of the people here have a safe, welcome home to live in. Some people even pay rent in homes where their kids are living. But they can’t live there. It’s just so senseless,” said Chicago 400 Alliance organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds.
Thomas Williams, a veteran and member of the Chicago 400, spoke of his struggles living on the street.
“Have you ever slept at a bus stop? Have you ever slept in the park covered up in newspapers? Have you ever been cold enough to bury yourself underground? I have,” he said.
For Eduardo Burgos, another member of the Chicago 400, who has been on a conviction registry since 2000, social stigma is another difficulty of being on a registry.
“Suppose you want to go to a community center or soup kitchen. Sometimes they run your ID and discover who you are. They might call the cops or make you leave,” Burgos said. “These people see you in a certain way.”
The Chicago 400 Alliance is working to revise Illinois state laws by changing the residency restriction distance from 500 feet to 250 feet and ending the weekly registration requirement for homeless people.
“A registry is really just a list of people on the internet,” Reynolds said. “It’s not a solution to community violence. It has no relationship to public safety.”
Viewers of the webinar were encouraged to connect and volunteer with the Chicago 400 Alliance, educate others and contact their Illinois state representative.
“Just because something is a law does not make it a just law,” Seifullah said. “We need help.”
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