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The High Cost of Budget Cuts
When Illinois slashes social services, the vulnerable suffer
By Patrick Yeagle

In August 2014, a young, African-American student in his junior year at Lanphier High School was caught carrying a gun at school. The student, whose name is being withheld because he is a minor, wasn’t trying to cause trouble. He was trying to protect himself.

The student had been targeted since his freshman year by a gang wanting him to join them. Gang members harassed him constantly and even shot at him once, prompting him to begin carrying a gun himself. After he was caught with the gun, he spent about six months in the juvenile detention center.

Now, that same student is on track to graduate from Lanphier in December and attend a vocational training school. The difference was the Springfield-based Boys and Girls Club of Central Illinois, which provides mentorship and a positive environment for teens after school. The student has gone to the Boys and Girls Club every day since his release.

“If I wasn’t here, and I was on house arrest, to tell you the truth, I’d probably see myself back in the juvenile center,” the student said. “I’d probably have the same mindset that it’s too dangerous out there on the street and I have to grab another gun. … This is helpful for me. It’s keeping me out of trouble.

” The Boys and Girls Club is one of hundreds of organizations around the state facing funding delays because of Illinois’ ongoing budget impasse and an overall funding cut because of the state’s fiscal crisis. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly want drastically different versions of the budget passed, but the negotiations have stalled because of a fundamental disagreement on other issues.

Meanwhile, the organizations that provide critical social services are preparing for the worst. Even once a budget is finally in place and money starts flowing to service providers once more, many of those groups which depend on the state will see their budgets slashed. That means the services they provide will be dialed back or cut altogether, which will have devastating consequences for those in need and for society as a whole. In mid-July, the statewide United Way of Illinois surveyed more than 400 social service agencies dealing with housing, child care, mental health and other issues about their reliance on state funding and where the budget crisis leaves them. “It’s almost unprecedented that the United Way has had to conduct such a survey,” said John Kelker, executive director of the United Way of Central Illinois, the Springfield branch of United Way. “In just a week’s time, 400 agencies from across the state wanted to contribute information because they realized what was staring them in the face.” The results are alarming: 70 percent of the agencies surveyed have only enough funds on hand to operate for three months or less without state assistance.

After that, many will have to close, cut programs or start borrowing money. Of the agencies with small cash reserves, 19 percent will deplete their funding by the end of this month. About 34 percent of agencies surveyed have already cut back on programs, and 24 percent have already begun borrowing money, which comes with hefty interest payments that further squeeze already tight agency budgets. “It’s really not even about the agencies,” Kelker said. “It’s about their clients, the moms and dads and children, those with mental health issues and so on. I don’t think legislators understand the impact of this situation.” Child care Demara Albert is a single mother with three children who works for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Her two sons, ages 11 and 12, and her daughter, age 10, go to the Boys and Girls Club in Springfield each weekday after school. There, the kids receive tutoring, learn new skills, play sports and more. “It’s a safe haven for the children,” Albert said. While the state budget is in limbo, the Boys and Girls Club hasn’t been getting the funding it needs to continue providing mentorship and supervision for the 400 children and teens the organization usually serves through the state’s Teen Reach program. Without that service, Albert says, her kids would be in danger.

Although they live in a safe neighborhood, Albert says they’re not quite old enough to be left on their own. “I would have to leave them at home,” she said. “I don’t get the time off I would need to leave work early every day. They would be at home alone for an hour or two every day.” Although a judge has ordered that state employees like Albert can be paid even without a state budget in place, Albert still worries that her paychecks may suddenly stop coming. “It’s like they’re setting me back,” Albert said. “I came from using government assistance, and they’re trying to make me go back to that. This is hurting parents who want to get out there and work.” Bill Legge, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club in Springfield, says the organization is faced with finding private dollars or closing its doors. The Boys and Girls Club provides tutoring, mentoring, basic life skills, athletics programs, art classes, a computer lab, a music studio and dinner every night. “We try to utilize everything we can to get them through the doors, but that only happens if we’ve got the funding to offer things they want to do,” Legge said.

Stories like that of Demara Albert or the student from Lanphier are common among the Boys and Girls Club’s clients, many who would otherwise be vulnerable to violence, hunger, substance abuse and other dangers. Boys and Girls Clubs across the state provide services for 8,000 children, more than half of the 15,000 children in the state’s Teen Reach program. “One way or another, we’re going to figure out how to be here,” Legge said. “But, there’s a difference between just being here and truly being impactful. It hurts. It really hurts.” Legge proudly shows off the recently renovated Boys and Girls Club facility that includes a modern gym, computer lab, kitchen, classrooms and teen lounge, but his voice takes on a somber tone when discussing the prospect that those rooms may not see any use. “It’s really disheartening that, after you’ve turned this place into a world-class facility, the state cuts your funding, and you’re left with an amazing space but no funding to run the program,” he said….

Kristin Allen, director of the Illinois Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, says the services her organization provides keep kids on the right track and help parents remain employed. Keeping kids in school and out of trouble helps schools and law enforcement, she says, while employers benefit from having staff who can focus on their work instead of being distracted wondering whether their children are safe. “Our concern for programs like this is that people may not immediately see the impact in front of them,” Allen said. “They may not live in certain neighborhoods where these programs take place, but ultimately, it impacts the overall quality of life in the entire community. It affects everyone.” Read More>>
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