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As we told you earlier, President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address on Tuesday. One of the things he's expected to talk about is criminal justice reform. The president has taken steps on his own to help former convicts rebuild their lives. One of the changes makes it easier for people with criminal records to live in subsidized housing. Alexandra Starr reports for NPR's Code Switch team about a program in New York that's trying that out.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: On a balmy evening, a group of kids play basketball in Harlem. They're on the grounds of a public housing complex. This is where 43-year-old Mike Rowe lives and where he grew up.
MIKE ROWE: We call this the big park.
STARR: His childhood apartment looked down on this space.
ROWE: Those two windows - that was my bedroom window right there - the one. That's the living room window.
STARR: A few years ago, Rowe wouldn't have been allowed to live here. That's because he served two decades in prison for murdering someone when he was 19 years old. In swaths of the country, that would mean he could never live in subsidized housing again.
MARGARET DIZEREGA: Some jurisdictions - you'll see a 99-year ban, depending on the kind of conviction.
STARR: That's Margaret diZerega. She supervises prison re-entry programs at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. She's also a consultant for a pilot program in New York City that's allowing former felons to move in with relatives who live in public housing. About 50 people participate. Rowe is one of them.
ROWE: For me, it was like a godsend.
STARR: He was selected in part because he turned his life around in prison. He earned a master's degree, married his longtime girlfriend, had three children. But a few months after Rowe was released, he and his wife split up. He has a job counseling other ex-offenders, but when he applies for apartments, landlords turn him away.
ROWE: Every place I go, they shoot me down. I go to the interview process and everything. Once they do the background check, it's a no-go.
STARR: If he hadn't been able to move in with his mom, who lives in public housing, he would have had to go to a homeless shelter. DiZerega says that can lead ex-offenders back to prison.
DIZEREGA: Because they don't have a home. And so, you know, what if they are sleeping on the street or there's public urination or some of these other things that are not public safety concerns, but put them at a higher risk of getting re-arrested for something?
STARR: DiZerega says moving in with relatives is often the only way ex-felons can have a roof over their heads.
DIZEREGA: We need to give people a way to come back home and to do it safely and to do it with support.
ELEANOR BRITT: And believe in second chances.
STARR: For almost three decades, Eleanor Britt has lived in the Taft Houses in Harlem.
BRITT: You have some people go to prison. They do turn their lives around, but then you have the other side of the coin. We have to come in and out of this building. And sometimes I'm coming in 11, 12 o'clock at night by myself, and I definitely don't want a rapist around me.
STARR: Her longtime neighbor Gloria Wright wants strict controls on this program.
GLORIA WRIGHT: I don't know. I don't want to say it's not going to work, but you need to follow up on people.
STARR: Participants must check in regularly with their social workers. Re-entry activists hope programs like this in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles become blueprints for a national model. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
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