Three months after the Illinois Legislature overrode Gov. Bruce Rauner’s vetoes to end a two-year budget stalemate, social service agencies held hostage during the impasse are still struggling to get back to normal.
Although funding is flowing again, many agencies are still owed substantial sums for past work performed for the state.
Then there is the more subtle damage: lost trust with program participants who couldn’t depend on the agency’s doors staying open, valued employees who quit to pursue careers with more reliable sources of income, remaining workers caught in the layoff-scarred mentality of waiting for the next shoe to drop.
“It is a challenge when programs are cut and you have to start and stop, start and stop,” said Mariana Osoria, a vice president with Family Focus, a social service provider that operates from seven locations in Chicago and the suburbs.
Family Focus specializes in early childhood development and related family support programs, including immigration services.
But in June as the state’s budget impasse surpassed the two-year mark with no end in sight, Family Focus found itself in the middle of the state political fight.
Owed $2.7 million by the state at that point for services already provided and having made some layoffs, agency officials essentially said they couldn’t take it any more.
Family Focus would be laying off 100 employees, it was announced, amounting to 71 percent of the agency’s total workforce.
Days later the budget was finally resolved, and Family Focus rescinded its layoffs after receiving an emergency payment from the state comptroller’s office.
Even now, however, Osoria said the agency continues to have to spread the word to its target clientele that it is open for business and offering most of the same services as before.
Family Focus’ neighborhood-based centers are designed to welcome community residents.
“People just walk in because they heard from a neighbor or friend we could help them,” Osoria told me from Family Focus’ office in the Hermosa neighborhood.
Obviously, that word-of-mouth approach is challenged when people think you’re going out of business.
Since the budget problems, Family Focus staff now has to use time and resources to recruit clients that previously could have gone toward delivering services, Osoria said.
During the budget impasse, many of these very same social service agencies tried to warn us this would happen. They told us that restarting programs or getting them back up to speed wouldn’t be as simple as picking up where they left off.
“We’ve lost critical staff that have decided to move because of the uncertainty,” Osoria said.
And for those who stayed, it’s “very challenging to maintain a positive morale,” she said.
Despite all that, Osoria’s main concern at this point is to restore funding for the Illinois Welcoming Center program, which is designed to give recent immigrants and refugees a one-stop shop for access to state resources.
Some $1.3 million was appropriated in the state’s fiscal 2018 budget for that program, but the Rauner Administration has withheld the funding.
The budget approved by the Legislature was not balanced, and state officials have said they need to apply the Welcoming Centers money toward child care subsidies.
Although similar immigrant service programs have received funding, Osoria said there are no programs or services that offer the “holistic approach” as the Welcoming Centers, which educate newcomers on everything from education to health services.
“In my view, it’s critically important,” she said.
We can argue among ourselves about where to best spend the state’s limited resources, but we should all agree to never allow another political fight to do so much damage to the not-for-profits that we rely upon to deliver social services.