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Even before any second COVID wave, many Chicagoans are still in need from the first one

State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe and her top aide say many of those who call, seeking help, are apologetic, seemingly guilty their financial hardships put them in need.

State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (left) and her chief of staff, Jessica Genova, at her office at 6319 N. Milwaukee Ave.
State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (left) and her chief of staff, Jessica Genova, at her office at 6319 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

The calls come daily to state Rep. Lindsey LaPointe’s office on the Northwest Side from people who need help navigating the state bureaucracy.

They call about unemployment benefits, housing assistance and food stamps. They call about utility bills, problems with state licenses and support for their small businesses.

Many of the callers these days are in tears, not knowing where to turn. Some can’t pay the rent. Others are worried about feeding their families.

Yet what’s striking to LaPointe’s chief of staff, Jessica Genova, is how apologetic many of the callers are, as if they’re feeling guilty about their predicament and needing help.

“I’ve never done this before,” they say.

It’s important to understand that the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic shocks have left many of our neighbors in crisis, facing financial strains they’ve never experienced.

With people isolated from each other to an even greater extent than normal, this isn’t always easy to see, especially for those lucky enough to still have their jobs.

But for those who have not been so fortunate, the disruption and pain are all too real, sometimes leading to an overwhelming sense of helplessness amid the uncertainty over when life will return to normal.

LaPointe and Genova generously offered me a window into their world so that others can see it, too.

LaPointe represents the 19th District, which mainly centers on Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Dunning and Gladstone Park. She’s been on the job a year, having taken over last July when Robert Martwick moved to the state Senate.

The 19th District is a relatively middle class section of the city where, LaPointe said, people generally aren’t accustomed to accessing the government social safety net.

Now, many of those people need its protections, exposing something that LaPointe, a trained social worker, already knew: The social safety net isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Far from being overly generous, as many believe, it’s full of gaping holes, and people are falling through them.

“The need has spiked,” LaPointe said. “We are in dual crises. The system wasn’t strong, and now it’s blowing up.”

Many of the callers facing financial hardships held office jobs before the pandemic. Others worked in restaurants or in the hard-hit hospitality industry. Some are substitute teachers.

Genova expected to work on government policy issues when she took the job with LaPointe. Instead, she’s found herself functioning more like a social worker since the pandemic hit.

One of Genova’s basic questions for everyone who calls is to ask how they are doing with food, whether they have enough.

Rarely does anyone turn down her offer of help.

“A couple of times a week, we’re coordinating food deliveries to families,” she said.

Still, there is a notable reluctance.

“For whatever reason, they feel there are other people who need it more,” Genova said.

The biggest problem is for people trying to get their unemployment benefits. The Illinois Department of Employment Security has proved to be no match for the large numbers of unemployed created by the pandemic.

People can’t get through to the agency online. They can’t get answers to their questions. In some cases, the wait for benefits can take months, though there have been recent improvements, according to Genova.

An added problem arose when the state began demanding repayment of excess unemployment benefits paid in error through no fault of the recipients. In most cases, that money already had been spent on rent or mortgage payments or putting food on the table, Genova said.

LaPointe said legislators are seeking a solution that would grant waivers to those being unfairly dunned, but, in the meantime, “It makes my blood boil.”

She said government programs need to be more flexible in these times.

A typical problem, Genova said, is that many people can’t qualify for rental assistance because they don’t have a formal lease. Often, they did have a lease, but it expired months ago, and now their landlords have no incentive to work with them.

Most people don’t think first of calling their state legislator when they need help, so, at the point they do, they already are frustrated over having to fight the system, LaPointe said.

Many callers are just happy to find someone who will talk with them and listen to their problem, even if it turns out there’s not much help to offer, according to Genova, though she also said, “We’ve been successful in helping countless people.”

As we brace for a possible second wave of the virus this winter, let’s not forget that many of our neighbors are still drowning from the first.