Southtown Star, Phil Kadner: Illinois’s needy to be hurt

By Phil Kadner, columnist

Jennifer, a Lynwood mother of two children, ages 5 and 2, was told she had two weeks to move.

The landlord at the house she had rented for two years said that rather than repair water pipes that froze and burst, he was going to demolish the house.

A home health aide, Jennifer and her family stayed with relatives and friends for several months before staying at a homeless shelter. With help from Respond Now, a social service agency in Chicago Heights, Jennifer’s family landed on its feet.

But the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Voices for Illinois Children and Housing Action Illinois fear that help for many families in similar circumstances may not be available next year.

From 2008 to 2013, funding for homeless prevention in Illinois has been cut by 64 percent (from $11 million to $4 million), according to Jennifer Cushman, public policy specialist for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Due to the state budget crisis, they expect steep cuts to the Homeless Prevention Program, which had not received all that much money in previous years.

If the state income tax increase is allowed to expire on schedule Jan. 1, Cushman said the number of families receiving help will drop from 3,818 to about 2,800.

“We’re talking about a program that provides only about $1,000 per family,” she said. “This money allows them to pay a month’s rent or a utility bill. It’s a program aimed at preventing homelessness because once someone enters a shelter, the cost to the state can be $20,000. It’s a smart use of the state’s financial resources.”

I told Cushman that while I sympathize with the plight of the poor and the homeless, the fact is that most Illinois residents want their taxes cut. That’s how people voted in the Nov. 4 election.

Cushman said that many of the people who end up homeless these days have jobs.

“Due to an illness in the family or a temporary financial problem, they get behind on their rent or mortgage payments and they end up on the streets or in shelters,” she said.

She said the state board of education has identified about 59,000 students in public schools as being homeless.

“That number includes families that have doubled up, living with relatives or friends temporarily, but we know from statistics that’s a very fluid situation. It’s not likely to last very long because it is a very difficult living arrangement,” Cushman said.

In an effort to gain support against funding cutbacks, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Voices for Illinois Children and Housing Action Illinois have joined to increase public awareness of the crisis. As part of that effort, they’ve prepared a series of reports, and the third in that series focuses on the story of Jennifer and her two children.

“They kids barely got any sleep and were crabby all the time,” Jennifer states in the report. “My 5-year-old in particular had a hard time and was acting out. And despite all the yummy homemade meals at the shelter, my kids barely ate anything.”

The assistance she received from the state’s Homeless Prevention Program through Respond Now allowed Jennifer to pay off a disputed balance on a utility bill from the old house — charges that continued to accumulate after she had called to shut off service, moved out and even after the house was demolished.

Without that help, the family would still be living in the shelter “because I couldn’t set up a utility account at a new address until the old one had been settled,” Jennifer said.

They family eventually moved into a new house, and although they didn’t have furniture, “we didn’t care,” Jennifer told the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

At its peak in 2008, the Homeless Prevention Program helped 12,441 families. As I stated earlier, that number fell sharply to about 3,800 in 2013 and is likely to decrease by another 1,000 families next year.

There are many people who are going to be hurt by state budget cuts, and a lot of good programs that will suffer.

Cushman acknowledged that school funding is important, along with quality public parks, for the quality of life in communities.

If the income tax is allowed to begin rolling back Jan. 1, she said her organization hopes that some other source of funding will be found to replace the lost tax revenue, about $2 billion in the first year alone.

I don’t see that happening. Gov. Pat Quinn made the case for extending the income tax hike, and the majority of voters didn’t buy it.

Yet, I believe many of those people, if they really understood the impact, if they believed it would hurt families trying to stay in their homes, might support keeping the current tax rate of 5 percent to continue funding for such programs.

The problem is that too many people don’t trust the state to use their tax money as intended.

Illinois residents are convinced, based on significant evidence, that much of their tax money will either be stolen by corrupt politicians or handed out to the pols’ friends through government contracts.

I don’t know how much Jennifer makes as a home health aide, but the state typically pays social service agencies less than $10 an hour for such work. That’s another area in dire need of more funding.

The list is long. The consequences for the elderly, the sick, the poor and children are significant.

Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner has promised to make Illinois the “most compassionate state in America.”

“I believe there is a very important role for government to help those who are vulnerable, those who are in need, those who need assistance from our society, from our community,” Rauner said in his first news conference following the Nov. 4 election.

How he balances that promise with his pledge to cut the income tax and freeze property taxes, as the state faces a $100 billion pension debt, will be fascinating to see.

It’s said that you can tell the greatness of a society by the way it treats its weakest members.

Illinois has failed dismally by that measure, as it has in many other ways.

But that failure is now used as an excuse for the rest of us to avert our eyes, turn our backs and protect our wallets.

Doing what’s right is never wrong.

Jennifer mother 5-year-old Jaylen (right) 2-year-old Jaleah 2 found herself homeless recently when her landlord decided demolish house she was

Jennifer, the mother of 5-year-old Jaylen (right) and 2-year-old Jaleah, 2, found herself homeless recently when her landlord decided to demolish the house she was renting and gave her two weeks to find another home. With help from Respond Now in Chicago Heights, she was given temporary shelter and moved into a new home. | Photo from Voices for Illinois Children