Illinois poverty growing as state budget shrinks

2011-09-19T00:30:00Z 2011-09-29T09:13:13Z Illinois poverty growing as state budget shrinksThe Associated Press The Associated Press
September 19, 2011 12:30 am  • 

CHICAGO • The line now forms before 4 p.m. to get into REST Shelter — a respite from Chicago's streets for those with no place else to go.

Once a 24-hour homeless shelter for more than 100 people, the facility in a dingy old church has had to lay off workers and close during the day as legislators chopped the Department of Human Services budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, including $4.7 million for homeless services.

The result is that many of the state's poorest and most vulnerable — REST residents include recovering addicts and the disabled — are left with fewer options and more uncertainty even as census data shows Illinois grappling with its highest poverty rate in nearly two decades as the jobless rate rises.

"It's the programs that serve people who are the most vulnerable that are being hit the hardest," said Eithne McMenamin, associate director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "That's only going to exacerbate the problem."

Mirroring financial problems for shelters across the state, REST lost $100,000 in state funds this year, which translated into a cut of about 10 positions — most of them minimum wage jobs. It also means the doors are closed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., a time when residents used to meet with caseworkers or just get away from the elements.

That means resident Heather McGuire, 38, who has chronic back pain, takes fibromyalgia medication and walks with a cane even for short distances, has to find a place to go during the day. So far, McGuire, who has no income, has spent some days at a women's center, but weekends are difficult.

"Sometimes I go to a park, even though it's not the safest thing," she said. "Wintertime, we don't know what's going to happen."

The Department of Human Services' budget has been cut by $669.3 million, a 17 percent drop. Services feeling the pinch include addiction treatment, which was slashed from $63.5 million to $46.6 million, and the budget for the Department of Children and Family Services, which was cut by $24.5 million, about 12.5 percent.

When legislators meet next month, they may decide to shift some of the money around. But Gov. Pat Quinn's administration says the state took a step backward in its safety net services.

"The governor is looking strategically to reallocate resources through the General Assembly," said Toni Irving, deputy chief of staff. "It's a difficult situation. You have a grocery list that has $40 worth of things on it and you've been given $10."

The latest census figures show a state poverty rate of 14.1 percent — about 1.8 million of Illinois' 12.8 million residents. It's the highest rate since 1992, when it was 15.6 percent, and has been climbing steadily for three years. Poverty is defined as a family that survives on about $22,000 annually.

The use of food stamps — another measure of poverty — has nearly doubled in some parts of Illinois with experts saying many recipients are formerly middle-class residents. In 2006, an average of 1.2 million people each month relied on the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; earlier this year the monthly average was closer to 1.8 million people.

Calls to the hunger hot line at the Illinois Hunger Coalition have skyrocketed. In August 2007, there were about 300 calls from people seeking help or guidance in getting food. In August of this year, it was more than 1,000 calls.

"People are calling and they're just sobbing," said the coalition's executive director, Diane Doherty.

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