by Nico Lang
The year-long war over Illinois's budget was a nightmare for social service agencies. And, as the Reader reported in July, even the stopgap deal reached at the 11th hour earlier this summer wasn't enough to reverse the damage done by a year of inaction.
Marginalized people dependent on social services were hit hard by the crisis: the elderly, populations with HIV, people of color, undocumented workers, youth, and the homeless, all suffered as a result of the impasse, even with stopgap measures in place.
But one group was particularly affected: LGBT people. These groups often rely on state funding in order to survive, and advocates say that any future cutbacks or stalemates could be life-threatening.
For example: as a result of the legislative logjam, 90 percent all homeless agencies in Chicago were forced to "deny assistance to people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness," within the past year, according to the Windy City Times. Because around 40 percent of all marginally housed youth identify as queer or transgender , that denial of service affected them disproportionately.
One of these groups is Lyte Collective, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works to meet the needs of the city's queer homeless youth. That's become increasingly difficult during the ongoing budget crisis.
"The state budget impasse has had a devastating effect on organizations that serve youth experiencing homelessness," says Megan Wakeman, the Lyte's chief program officer. "Some programs have closed entirely, and others have been forced to make significant cuts and eliminate services. Programs have had to limit hours and location of services, resulting in significant reduction of young people who are able to get their needs met."
Many youth organizations, due to lack of funding, have been forced to focus on very basic services—like providing food and clothing—rather than more intensive, life-affirming resources—such as after-school programs and education.
"Our mission of being in the social services field and working with young people who are homeless and have experienced trauma is to empower them—help them build their identities, and see potential in their future," Wakeman says. "The question really becomes: Is that possible now? Realistically and honestly, is this something we can provide them?"
Chicago House, one of the city's largest resource centers for LGBT people affected by homelessness, poverty, and unemployment, remains severely impacted by the impasse, which has decimated the organization's funding.
CEO Scott Ammarell says the state originally cut the organization's funding in half and has only paid it about 35 percent of what it's owed for the services it provided in 2016. That outstanding bill—which Ammarell says amounts to around $240,000—has had a devastating impact on Chicago House, leading to staff layoffs and a reduction in the number of clients the organization serves.
"With the state not paying us, we are in jeopardy of having to make even more staff cuts and reduce services even further," Ammarell says. "I have no idea where the governor thinks people in need are going to turn once the state funding goes away."
He believes that trans people will be harmed the most by a reduction in the organization's programming.
"Transgender women—especially trans women of color—are twice as likely to be unemployed or underemployed than cisgender people," he says. If you take away the Chicago House dollars that we're using for employment services for transgender women, that service has no chance of being alleviated."
To add insult to injury, the organization has also lost out on federal funding as a result of the crisis.
"A lot of the money that the social service agencies receive from [the Illinois Department of Human Services] is used on matching dollars for federal grants," Ammarell explains. "Let's say that the state gives an agency like Chicago House $100,000. If we turn around and leverage that $100,000 with another $100,000 that comes from the federal government, we've now got $200,000 to address and use for our programs to support our clients."
"If the state of Illinois takes away $100,000," he adds, "they're really taking away $200,000 in services when those grants are matched."
Mental health programs in the state have likewise been decimated by the ongoing budget crisis. This is a huge problem for the LGBT community, as research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows that queer- and trans-identified people are three times more likely to experience mental illness, including anxiety and depression.
"Given the stress factors of being a minority, not being treated fairly and equitably—even in our families and churches—that can cause mental distress," says Rick Garcia, a longtime gay rights activist. "We often don't want to admit it."
Instead of helping those experiencing psychological distress, many end up behind bars: by some accounts, the Cook County Jail is the largest mental health facility in the state.
Again, LGBT people are disproportionately affected by this reality: a national survey released in February from the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project found that the percentage of LGBT folks currently behind bars is twice the rate of queer and trans people in the general population.
The $700-million shortfall for social service providers has also hit HIV-positive communities hard. There are about 43,500 people living with AIDS in Illinois, according to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
"That's really important, not only in terms of personal health for individuals but community health," says Ramon Gardenhire, vice president of policy and advocacy for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "What the data shows us is that if someone is tested and linked to care early, it minimizes their ability to pass the virus onto someone else. By not testing people and linking them to care, we're perpetuating HIV transmission in communities."
Gardenhire is blunt about how this would affect people living with HIV. "They die," he says. "When people don't have access to lifesaving medications, their health deteriorates."
As goes Illinois's social services, so goes the state: a recent report from the Associated Press showed that the federal government's "rainy day" fund—meant to be used in times of economic downturn—has been drained by the crisis. The account should have between $1.5 to $3 billion in it, but it's down to a reported $180 million.
Illinois's stopgap budget goes through the end of the calendar year. Ensuring future funding for these groups won't just help right the financial ship. As advocates say, it will also save lives.
Update: After publication, Chicago House told the Reader that since we first spoke to the group the state had come through with payment of approximately $140,000, or around 35 percent of what the group says it's owed for services provided in 2016.