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Impact of the State Budget Impasse

Tom Holmes

Courtesy of Tom Holmes, Wednesday Journal (Source)

Housing Forward Executive Director Lynda Schueler said the failure of Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature to pass a budget for the state of Illinois has already dried up funding for two staff positions, and if money continues to be withheld, a decision on more cuts will come in June.

Housing Forward has been contracted by the state to provide services in two areas: the agency's emergency shelter and supportive housing for the homeless.

The emergency shelter has not received $38,000, which is 22 percent of its budget. And the supportive housing program, already cut from a fiscal year 2015 funding level of $150,000, has gone without the $74,000 the state is contracted to give for fiscal year 2016.

"For us that means we have to spend some of our other funding, like drawing from our reserves, and last fall we did not fill two vacant positions, one in housing and the other in homeless prevention, which means that the caseloads of everyone still working here has been increased," Schueler said.

If the state budget impasse continues, she said, in April Housing Forward may need to dip into its line of credit for a short-term fix and if the funding drought continues into June, "Our board of directors may have to make some critical decisions."

In addition to the money not flowing directly into Housing Forward from the state, the dried up revenue streams to other agencies has also significantly affected Housing Forward's ability to assist the homeless. For example, diminished funding to mental health providers has limited the ability of her staff to provide services. It produces a domino effect.

"Some of our clients can't get to see their psychiatrist to get their meds because of a waiting list or because new patients are not being accepted," she noted. "When you don't get your medication, you become sicker. In the case of a mental health crisis, you're going to spiral."

Her staff does not have stats to verify their observations, but anecdotally they are seeing an increase of people suffering from mental illness.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has become, in effect, the largest provider of housing for the mentally ill in the county, she said. Because they are not receiving needed support, people with mental illness who spiral downward often get in trouble with the law, and the Cook County Jail becomes their "shelter."

When people call the homeless prevention hotline, she said, because they've received a five-day eviction notice, their unemployment payments haven't kicked in yet or they can't work because of an injury, they have to be told that no state dollars are available to help them through their crisis, and some of those families wind up in the emergency shelter.

So far in the 2015-16 shelter season, the number of families with children using the emergency is already double the number housed during the entire 2014-2015 season. The problem, Schueler said, is that because the PADS shelter program has limited capacity each night and because the organization guarantees shelter for families, some of those who are alone are turned away.

When asked how the morale of her staff is holding up during this time, Schueler replied, "Everybody's been great. Everybody's been pitching in."

That said, she acknowledged that not getting the promised dollars has had an effect. Social workers, she noted, don't make a high salary. Their main compensation is the satisfaction received from seeing the lives of their clients improving.

Not only has that satisfaction been diminished, Schueler said, but clients get frustrated when they can't get what they need and sometimes take it out on the very staff people who are frustrated by their inability to deliver.

The Housing Forward ship is nowhere near sinking, however. Schueler said that diminished funding accounts for $112,000 or less than 5 percent of their $4.3 million budget. The situation between now and June may make matters worse, but for now Housing Forward is moving ahead.

Schueler said one thing readers can do is to pressure representatives in Springfield to support House Bill 4955, introduced by Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch on Feb. 5, which, according to an information sheet distributed by Housing Action Illinois, "includes full restoration to fiscal year 2015 levels for affordable housing and homeless/mental health supportive housing."

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