Our safety net is fraying

Opinion: Columns

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

Sure, they worry about the immediate impact of the state's budget debacle on their own social service agencies, but Monday morning, at a gathering of 13 local social service leaders convened in the board room of Community Bank, the fear most often expressed was watching the threads of our villages' safety net actively fray.

Lynda Schueler, executive director of Housing Forward (formerly PADS), reported that for the first time ever the shelter hit capacity in September. 

"We had to turn people away in September. Never happened before. We've had an explosion of families. I was at the shelter last Wednesday. There were two families with four children each. There were 16 kids in the shelter that night."

Carol Gall, the top person at Sarah's Inn, the agency working on domestic violence, said they had used their emergency hotel fund more in the past quarter than in all of last year. 

"The shelters are filled," she said. "Sometimes you just can't find a place for a family. It is a trickle-down effect."

The decision by Gov. Bruce Rauner to change the eligibility rules for state subsidies for poor families to place their kids in daycare isn't even a direct result of the infuriating budget standoff between "the grown men fighting" as one nonprofit leader said Monday. Instead this rule change is part of Rauner's permanent plan to cut costs in Illinois. The working poor no longer qualify for the subsidy, leading them to quit jobs or put their small kids in some patchwork of ever-changing care, said Carolyn Newberry Schwartz of the Collaboration for Early Childhood. Oak Park's childcare providers, many of them in small storefronts, says Newberry Schwartz, are cutting staff hours and delaying payrolls as their income and enrollment drops.

The Food Pantry which was actually seeing a small decline — 4 percent — in visits in the first half of 2015, now has seen demand grow 5 percent, said Michele Zurakowski, as families "pay for childcare or psych services and cut on food." 

Riveredge Hospital, an acute care psych hospital in Forest Park, puts a major focus on discharging stabilized patients into community-based programs for after care. Now those programs are cutting back and unable to take new clients. 

"We are failing our clients," said Carey Carlock, the hospital's president. "Everything escalates. Emotionally and fiscally, we are going to pay for this."

Every person around the table had a story of the impact of this battle. NAMI is worried that funds for training cops in dealing with people with mental health issues is being sliced. The Children's Clinic is losing state funds for portable dentistry services. Hephzibah said court-ordered programs for the birth parents of its 26 state wards can't be provided because drug rehab and mental health programs are being cut across the state.

"We're all concerned about the collective impact of the budget impasse. It's pretty stunning. We're looking at the decimation of the [social service] infrastructure in this community," said Nina Allen, president of Thrive Counseling Center.

 Said Newberry Schwartz, "The longer this goes on, the more things crumble. It is hard to rebuild when you have lost the general infrastructure. We're in a crisis now. But what will this look like in January?"

To the casual citizen, this recklessness in Springfield can be invisible. Through a patchwork of ass-covering, the governor and legislators kept public schools open for the fall semester; state employees continue to be paid. What has been left unprotected is the final 10 percent of state spending, funds devoted to care for Illinoisans in trouble, overlooked, voiceless and vulnerable. 

With a mix of pain, anger, fear but a core of steel born of years of advocating for those most of us pretend not to know, the agency leaders in Oak Park are turning up the heat. 

All focused on the message that "grown men fighting" is a failed excuse for governing. 

Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

Reader Comments

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Mike Hanline  

Posted: November 10th, 2015 2:07 PM

"Its sad that things have gotten so bad under President Obama's watch." Yes, because things were so peachy when Bush left office...or did you sleep through the country's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: November 9th, 2015 4:03 PM

Its sad that things have gotten so bad under President Obama's watch.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: November 9th, 2015 9:55 AM

Well said, Bob

Bob Simpson  

Posted: November 8th, 2015 8:46 PM

The extreme wealth inequality favored by our contemporary monied class is very unhealthy for our society and fatal to some of us. The wealthy and their corporations need to be taxed heavily for two reasons. One is to fund necessary social programs such as mentioned in the article. The other is to reduce their power over our broken political system where actual votes mean less and less and dollar signs mean more and more when it comes to creating legislation.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: November 5th, 2015 11:44 AM

Looks like a Complaint meeting with no discussion of solutions. That is; it is a WJ Sky Falling piece. We have heard the social scream before. This time lets hear the action and solutions.

Leonard Grossman from River Forest  

Posted: November 5th, 2015 12:38 AM

Governor LetThemEatCake, is playing with fire and we will have to sweep up the ashes. Thank you for an excellent essay.

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