Illinois poverty grows even as state help shrinks

Associated Press
In this Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 photo, Mark Blakey, a resident of the REST Shelter in Chicago and a former drug addict, poses for a portrait at the shelter. Blakey, 54, lost his job because of a cocaine addiction and spends his time going to recovery meetings, spending time with an aunt or just walking around the city.  “I keep myself busy,” he said.  “I feel blessed I have somewhere to go." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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CHICAGO (AP) — 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 around 10 positions — mostly 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, 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, the 38-year-old, 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."

Overall, the Department of Human Services' budget has been cut by $669.3 million, a full 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, or 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."

Irving is co-chair of the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty. The group's goal is to reduce the number of those living in extreme poverty in half by 2015, but it laid out its fears in a report this month that the state could go in the other direction.

"This year we saw devastating state budget cuts and a lack of real solutions for individuals and families experiencing extreme poverty," the report said. "Illinois can expect to see deepening hardship, further entrenchment of social problems, and movement away from the achievable goal of cutting extreme poverty in half."

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 around $22,000 annually. Extreme poverty is half that amount.

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 around 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. She said many of the calls are coming from area codes they haven't received calls from before.

All of the residents at REST — which provides meals, transitional housing and emergency beds— are in poverty, said executive director Kathleen Ahler, if not extreme poverty. And the prospects of things improving look grim.

"Our ability to help people to get off the street is definitely impaired," she said. "If you can't keep people healthy and safe and stable as far as they know they have a place to be, it's very difficult for them to overcome their employment barriers. It's nearly impossible."

Measuring the number of homeless people is tricky and estimates vary; advocates say there's a stigma attached to being homeless and many don't allow themselves to be counted. But on any given night, more than 14,000 people in Illinois are homeless, according to a January report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Advocates say more than half are in Chicago.

REST is among many homeless facilities facing issues. Advocates say others in Chicago have cut down on food portions. TIMES Center in Champaign, a men's transitional living facility with about 70 beds, lost about $95,000 in state funding, and has cut staff and closes its doors to clients during the day.

Supervisor Jason Greenly said that also means existing staff is overwhelmed with cases. Sometimes it's even difficult to get to dispensing medication.

"In an environment like this, crisis happens all the time," he said.

Homeless people often battle other issues too. REST resident Mark Blakey lost his job because of a cocaine addiction and spends his days when the center is closed finding recovery meetings, visiting an aunt or just walking around the city. The 54-year-old had been clean three weeks.

"I feel blessed I have some place to go," he said.


Sophia Tareen can be reached at


Associated Press reporter Christopher Wills in Springfield contributed to this report.

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