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Opinion: The human toll of no state budget

n this June 26, 2014 file photo, a lone inmate in Division 2 Dorm 2 of the Cook County Jail, where male prisoners with mental disorders bunk, sits arms folded on his bunk in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast-File)

Eight months ago, I wrote an op-ed about Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts, highlighting their impact on “Frank.” Frank — homeless and suffering from mental illness — was working hard to put his life back together.

Frank had multiple agencies supporting him. He was living in Aurora at Hesed House, the state’s second largest homeless shelter. His substance abuse counselor was helping him maintain sobriety. He was attending sessions with a mental health counselor. He was receiving regular medical treatment at Aunt Martha’s Health and Outreach Center. He was also working with law students from the Northern Illinois University College of Law Health Advocacy Clinic, which helps clients access public benefits.

OPINION

Frank had a history of mental health hospitalizations but was receiving regular care and medication. He was optimistic about moving out of Hesed House.

Now, Frank has a new home: jail.

Seven months ago, the social service agencies supporting Frank were preparing for the impact of Rauner’s proposed budget cuts. However, nothing could have prepared them for state funds to be cut off completely — for over eight months now, with no end in sight.

Zero state funding has been catastrophic for social service agencies and the people they serve. The hours of Frank’s mental health and substance abuse counselors were cut back at Hesed House, making it harder for him to access treatment. When Frank does not receive needed treatment, his mental illness and addiction issues impair his judgment, and he ends up in jail. The cost is not just Frank’s. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every dollar spent on addiction treatment programs yields an average $4 to $7 benefit in reduced incarceration and costs of crime.

There is more need than ever for Hesed House. Every year, the shelter serves about 1,000 individuals, including 188 children. Eleven percent more people are seeking overnight shelter in Hesed House’s PADS emergency program compared with seven months ago. Every week, the shelter gets about 50 phone calls seeking homelessness preventative services. Many are from families with children, families who will likely be homeless soon if there is no state budget.

Without state funding, Hesed House cannot help these callers. It has had to lay off staff and cut case management assistance for disabled chronically homeless individuals living in independent housing. It is likely these individuals, including children, will return to homelessness without a state budget.

Frank and other Illinois residents rely heavily on Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, the state’s largest provider of social services. LSSI had to lay off 43 percent of its work force in January, resulting in the cutting of 30 programs — including Frank’s rehabilitation program — that serve 4,700 individuals. LSSI had little choice due to the $6 million unpaid by the state. The programs cut include those helping seniors, veterans, the homeless, individuals suffering from mental illness and those seeking drug/alcohol treatment.

Increasingly, jails have replaced community mental health providers. For example, according to Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart’s website, “on any given day, between 25-30 percent of the inmates at Cook County Jail suffer from mental illnesses. The majority of these inmates are in jail for nonviolent offences closely associated with their mental health issues and would be far better served by treatment rather than incarceration.”

What will happen once Frank gets released? It is unclear how long Hesed House can function at the rate being demanded without state funds. If Frank returns to Hesed House, he will have a harder time receiving help. The mental health and substance abuse agencies that supported him have reduced the hours of their employees at Hesed House.

There are many others like Frank who desperately depend on the social services now in jeopardy. We cannot afford to let the agencies fold because our state government cannot pass a budget.

Frank will be the first to admit he made bad decisions in life. Once he is released from jail, he will likely want to improve. Hopefully, lawmakers in Springfield will help him by passing a budget. Having no budget is irreparably damaging some of our society’s most vulnerable, and it is time for that to end.

Colleen Boraca is a clinical assistant professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law. She directs the Northern Illinois University College of Law Health Advocacy Clinic in Aurora.

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