State budget cuts hit the vulnerable
By Sophia Tareen September 18, 2011 12:46AM
Homeless men visit the REST Shelter in Chicago, where they will spend the night. Illinois’ poverty is creeping up just as the state’s ability to care for people is creeping down because of its budget crunch. | AP
The line now forms before 4 p.m. to get into REST Shelter — a respite from Chicago’s streets for those with no place else to go.
Once a 24-hour homeless shelter for more than 100 people, the facility in a dingy old church has had to lay off workers and close during the day as legislators chopped the Department of Human Services budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, including $4.7 million for homeless services.
The result is that many of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable — REST residents include recovering addicts and the disabled — are left with fewer options and more uncertainty even as census data shows Illinois grappling with its highest poverty rate in nearly two decades as the jobless rate rises.
“It’s the programs that serve people who are the most vulnerable that are being hit the hardest,” said Eithne McMenamin, associate director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “That’s only going to exacerbate the problem.”
Mirroring financial problems for shelters across the state, REST lost $100,000 in state funds this year, which translated into a cut of around 10 positions — mostly minimum wage jobs. It also means the doors are closed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., a time when residents used to meet with caseworkers or just get away from the elements.
That means resident Heather McGuire, who has chronic back pain, takes fibromyalgia medication and walks with a cane even for short distances, has to find a place to go during the day. So far, the 38-year-old, who has no income, has spent some days at a women’s center, but weekends are difficult.
“Sometimes I go to a park, even though it’s not the safest thing,” she said. “Wintertime, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Overall, the Department of Human Services’ budget has been cut by $669.3 million, a full 17 percent drop. Services feeling the pinch include addiction treatment, which was slashed from $63.5 million to $46.6 million, and the budget for the Department of Children and Family Services, which was cut by $24.5 million, or about 12.5 percent.
When legislators meet next month, they may decide to shift some of the money around. But Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration says the state took a step backward in its safety net services.
“The governor is looking strategically to reallocate resources through the General Assembly,” said Toni Irving, deputy chief of staff. “It’s a difficult situation. You have a grocery list that has $40 worth of things on it and you’ve been given $10.”
Irving is co-chair of the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty. The group’s goal is to reduce the number of those living in extreme poverty in half by 2015, but it laid out its fears in a report this month that the state could go in the other direction.
“This year we saw devastating state budget cuts and a lack of real solutions for individuals and families experiencing extreme poverty,” the report said. “Illinois can expect to see deepening hardship, further entrenchment of social problems, and movement away from the achievable goal of cutting extreme poverty in half.”
The latest census figures show a state poverty rate of 14.1 percent — about 1.8 million of Illinois’ 12.8 million residents. It’s the highest rate since 1992, when it was 15.6 percent, and has been climbing steadily for three years. Poverty is defined as a family that survives on around $22,000 annually. Extreme poverty is half that amount.
Measuring the number of homeless people is tricky and estimates vary; advocates say there’s a stigma attached to being homeless and many don’t allow themselves to be counted.
But on any given night, more than 14,000 people in Illinois are homeless, according to a January report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Advocates say more than half are in Chicago.