Ellen Hao

In June 2015, a coalition of about three hundred Illinois nonprofits issued an open letter urging Governor Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly to pass a budget before the new fiscal year. The letter highlighted the impact funding cuts would have on people who rely on social services if the Illinois legislature failed to resolve their budget impasse. In particular, a number of programs on the South Side that depend on government funding have already made, or are considering making, cuts to their services. The result has been the beginning of a widespread lack of services for South Side residents, especially for at-risk youth.

The stalemate over Illinois’s budget boils down to a showdown between Rauner, a Republican, and the state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. Rauner vetoed the proposed 2016 fiscal year budget in July, since it didn’t contain spending cuts he wanted. The state has been without a budget ever since, although a collection of separate bills, state laws, and court orders has maintained many programs. However, these methods have largely failed to fund social services, resulting in severe consequences for some of the most vulnerable groups in the city.

Family Focus, a Chicago-based organization, is one of the groups that signed the open letter. Family Focus provides support programs for children and parents, such as counseling and screening for children exposed to violence. Loretta Barriffe, the director of Family Focus Englewood, told the Weekly the center has needed to cut its Young Parents Program, which provided home visitations for about sixty-five families.

“We have continued to involve participants quarterly in some sort of special event, and to open opportunities for them to attend group sessions which are no longer paid for, but which we’re trying to maintain,” Barriffe said. “We want to still have some contact with the families who we’re no longer seeing in the program where they were able to get support for the parent-child interaction.”

A loss of funding from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority has also impacted the Safe Start program, which provides support and counseling for families with children below the age of five who have been exposed to violence. Barriffe estimated that about forty families who were in the Safe Start program have stopped receiving services. “All we can do is serve the families we still have,” she said.

In fact, entire support systems for youth and young adults are gradually being eroded as organizations struggle to come up with the funds to survive. Harmony Village, a transitional living facility for youth located in Auburn Gresham, was awarded a contract from the Illinois Department of Human Services this past June but has not received any money since July. Flora Koppel, executive director of Unity Parenting and Counseling, the organization that runs Harmony Village, estimates that the state owes the facility about $150,000, money that normally goes toward paying rent, utilities, and staff. “We thought we might be in trouble at the end of April, but we keep kicking the can down the road,” said Koppel, adding, “I think we’ll be okay through June, but I don’t know what we’re going to do this next fiscal year.”

The effects of the crisis are instead making themselves felt in smaller ways, ominous suggestions of the larger changes to come if the budget impasse remains unresolved. Administrative office space and staff have both been reduced—in Koppel’s words, “it feels like we all have a million jobs”—and Unity Parenting can no longer provide the sixty residents with non-crucial goods and services, like bus passes and new furniture.

Still, it’s nothing compared to what will happen if new funds aren’t forthcoming. “There could be twenty-eight families on the street,” Koppel said. “And since a lot of other programs are in similar crises, there is no other program they can get in quickly because all of them are having difficulties.” She predicts that in trying to feed their families, many of the residents could end up in jail. And the systems of information, formal and informal, that Harmony’s tenants currently have access to—how to get healthcare, or use proper protection for sex—will also be lost to them.

Education is another area that has taken a significant hit. Run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Corazón a Corazón is an organization that provides educational assistance to the South Side Latino community. They run an ESL program for adults, particularly for parents who want to improve their employment opportunities and better help their children with their schoolwork. The After-School and Summer Achievement Camp programs are designed to support children through tutoring and academic enrichment. Though these programs are primarily run by volunteers, the budget crisis has still had a severe effect on the organization.

Particularly notable was the loss of a $25,000 grant from the Secretary of State’s office. As staff member Mayra Pimentel explained to the Weekly, “Not having a volunteer-intern coordinator definitely affects the number of volunteers we are able to secure. The lack of funds affects our budget, but we have been able to maintain our services since other staff has taken additional responsibilities and absorbed the work that pertains to that position.” That’s because the commitment of the staff to Corazón a Corazón’s mission is keeping the group going in spite of the funding shortage. “Luckily,” says Pimentel, “our staff is comprised of dedicated individuals who feel committed to our clients and have willingly taken on more work rather than curtail services.”

Another organization that is finding ways around the budget crisis is Growing Home, a community farm and training program based in Englewood. Growing Home’s model is to provide residents with a supportive environment in which they can develop skills and habits that will help them find future jobs. The farms, which are coordinated by production assistants, also provide healthy and fresh produce. This is particularly notable because much of the South Side is a food desert, an area in which healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are few and far between.

April Harrington, Development Director at Growing Home, explained the organization’s funding situation to the Weekly: “We are very fortunate that state funds only make up three percent of our budget. We have a contract with the Illinois Department of Corrections for $50,000 per year. Because of this, we have not been affected as much as other organizations. We haven’t been paid for that contract since last July, but we are able to make up for the shortcoming without cutting programs or staff.”

This strain is often more pronounced, though, for similar organizations. “What’s happening in Illinois is precisely why fundraisers try to keep government funds to a small percentage of our budgets,” Harrington said. “That’s unfortunate because it means that public funds aren’t really doing what they’re supposed to do, and it’s up to private money to keep our lights on and make sure our clients get the services they need.”

Additional reporting by Christian Belanger.

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