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Brown: Catholic Charities leader raises distress signal

Monsignor Michael M. Boland in 2014. File Photo. | Karie Angell Luc/for Sun-Times Media

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Monsignor Michael Boland is worried.

Worried sick, I’d say, except the soft-spoken priest doesn’t talk like that. He prefers understatement.

So when Boland seeks me out to convey his concern, well, let’s just say that ought to worry a lot of other people.

Boland is President of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the largest and most important social service agency in Cook and Lake counties.

Like most social service providers in Illinois, Catholic Charities has been severely impacted by the state budget stalemate that has caused the agency to go unpaid for programs it has continued to provide.

OPINION

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As of Tuesday, the state’s debt to Catholic Charities was nearing $26 million and growing by $2 million a month, an unsustainable clip.

“We have not had to close any programs, but it’s becoming closer and closer, Boland said. “I don’t know a date yet.”

But in taking the rare step of inviting me in for an interview, Boland emphasized that his concern was not just for the charity he runs but for the hundreds of other smaller nonprofit agencies in the state’s quickly unraveling social service safety net.

The state budget crisis is killing those agencies, and in the process starting to cause real harm to the people most in need of society’s help — the poor, elderly and children that Catholic Charities serves with their help.

“A lot of these other agencies couldn’t do this. They couldn’t become the bank of the state of Illinois,” Boland said of the big loan that Catholic Charities, in effect, is floating the state for services already rendered.

The smaller nonprofits, each of them created to perform some social service function not met adequately by government, have been forced to rely on costly short-term bank letters of credit to stay afloat. Some don’t even have that option.

It’s a vicious cycle that has already reached the breaking point for some agencies with the state now nearly eight months behind in approving a budget.

For them, no budget means no payment. No payment means no way to continue to provide the service. No service means little people get hurt.

As an example, Boland cited the recent announcement that Haymarket Center had closed its detox unit program because of state funding issues. Haymarket is usually one of the first places Catholic Charities turns when trying to place homeless people who say they are ready to seek help for drug or alcohol problems, a first step in getting off the street.

“That just takes out a major option,” Boland said.

“When these agencies close,” he continued, “it just creates more obstacles for us to try to help people to move to, whether it might be sobriety or self-sufficiency or to be able to work.

“When you close early childhood centers, then families can’t work, and if families can’t work, they spiral further into poverty.”

Boland is hoping to communicate a sense of urgency to our state’s political leaders, who will meet today in Springfield for Gov. Bruce Rauner’s second budget address with no resolution in sight for his first budget.

“A budget to most of us is just a sheet of paper with numbers on it,” Boland said. “We have to realize that a budget is something that actually helps human beings.”

Boland said the state’s leaders don’t seem to understand that when these social service programs close, that’s usually the end of them.

“They’re gone,” he said.

Boland admits he has been hesitant before now to speak out, in part not wanting to scare the people who rely on Catholic Charities for help, such as the 15,000 seniors who participate in a program that provides them various services in their homes to help them avoid going into a nursing home.

One in three Chicago residents receive some service from Catholic Charities over the course of a year, Boland said. Surprising to me, some 75 percent of its $200 million annual budget comes from government funding.

If Catholic Charities were to close 20 percent of its programs, that would hurt 200,000 people, Boland said.

“Where would they go? For me, I’m trying to hold the line … because I don’t think these people should be pawns of government.”

Boland noted that some are starting to say there will be no resolution to this crisis until after the general election in November.

“I don’t know what will be left after the general election as far as services,” he warned.

Consider that a loud cry for help from a quiet man.

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