Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Feds selective in homeless they are pushing to help

By Mark Brown, Columnist

The federally funded program that Ayesha Cargill credits with lifting her from homelessness — and possibly saving her life — no longer exists.

That’s a personal concern for Cargill, who wonders where she would go if the mental health problems that contributed to her becoming homeless were to return.

But she wonders, too, about all the people she sees on the street right now, “people who are just like me.” She’d like to refer them to those who gave her so much help, but they’re not there any more.

Altogether, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development eliminated funding this summer to 12 of the 15 programs that provide so-called “supportive services” to homeless Chicagoans.

These are services ranging from mental health and substance abuse counseling to help with finding a job or an apartment — the support that can enable a homeless person to not only get a roof over their head but also to keep it.

“They helped find my apartment. They helped me understand my diagnosis and how to deal with my symptoms. They fed me. They clothed me. They helped me see a new light at the end of the tunnel,” Cargill says of the former homeless support program at Northwestern Medical Center’s Satellite Clinic, among those that lost funding.

On Monday, a group of social service agencies led by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless said it was asking Mayor Rahm Emanuel to increase the city transfer tax — only on sales of million-dollar plus homes — to help replace lost federal funding for homeless support services.

The .1 percent “luxury” tax would add $1,000 to the city transfer tax burden on a $1 million home, up from the current $10,500.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, certainly not any time soon with an election just around the corner.

But city officials say they also are concerned about the federal cuts and have been meeting with the homeless coalition and others to try and find a solution.

It’s a little ironic — and not entirely coincidental — that this problem arrives at the same time the federal government is making a big push to end homelessness for veterans by the end of 2015.

Along with a new rapid re-housing philosophy in which an emphasis is placed on getting homeless individuals housed quickly, and helping them solve their other problems later, such re-ordered federal priorities benefit some at the expense of others.

“Giving somebody an apartment will solve the condition but won’t solve the problem,” said Jackie Edens, executive director of Inner Voice, one of the city’s leading homeless service providers.

Inner Voice lost $678,000 in the federal cutbacks, money that previously was spent on sending case managers into city homeless shelters to give individuals the assistance they need to piece their lives back together. Often, that starts with something as simple as getting a state identification card.

Edens, a former director of homeless services for the city, knows these are difficult funding decisions, equating it to a doctor asking: “which limb do you want to cut off?”

But cutting off supportive services won’t work, she said, noting that her surviving case managers are already seeing homeless individuals who benefited from rapid re-housing land back on the street as their subsidies run out.

For Cargill, 26, who grew up in Uptown, the slide into homelessness followed a familiar pattern.

“I became mentally disabled,” she explained. “It kind of runs in my family.”

In her case, that meant hallucinations — hearing voices and seeing things that aren’t there. Schizophrenia is the term you probably know, a scary illness but mostly scary for her. That’s why I want to thank her for being brave enough to come forward.

About five years ago, Cargill lost her job as a gas station cashier after failing to show up. She quit going to school, too, and then the grandmother with whom she had been living kicked her out.

Cargill ended up living in homeless shelters, but as her downhill slide continued, police picked her up off the street one night and took her to Northwestern, which was the beginning of her turnaround.

“I never really had anybody before this to guide me,” said Cargill, who now has an apartment, is preparing to return to community college to study fine arts and thinks she’s ready for a job again, too.

Cargill had already advanced through the Northwestern program before it was closed, but still goes to the medical center for therapy.

The next person in Cargill’s shoes probably won’t be as fortunate.