CITY HALL — Activists claimed a tentative victory at City Hall Monday morning, when a long-awaited hearing on closed mental health clinics was rescheduled after being quashed, they said, by the mayor and the city's Department of Public Health.
"The Health Department said, 'No,' because the Health Department has not wanted to deal with it at all," said N'Dana Carter, spokeswoman for a coalition of mental health and neighborhood groups calling themselves the Mental Health Movement.
Carter said the groups received word last Thursday that they would finally get a hearing on six mental health clinics closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel two years ago in a budget crunch. She called it "a committee hearing we've been trying to hold since before the mental health clinics were closed, so it's been more than two years."
Carter said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council's Health Committee, has waffled on the matter all along, adding, "For two years, he's been saying, 'I will do it,' 'I won't do it,' 'I will do it,' 'I won't do it.'"
She said the coalition got word Thursday that the hearing would be added to the agenda for Monday's meeting of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection.
"We started gathering people, our fallen soldiers is what they are," Carter said. They were "extremely elated," but "at 4 o'clock that afternoon, we were told it was a mistake."
"We believe it was the Department of Public Health, Dr. [Bechara] Choucair," who was behind the cancellation, Carter said. "What we don't understand is what is the mayor afraid of?"
At the beginning of Monday's Health Committee meeting, Cardenas announced "it was not a cancellation." He said the hearing was delayed while the city collects more data, both on government agencies dealing with the issue and on the full range of health issues faced by the mentally ill.
"How can we have a hearing when there are no answers?" Cardenas said. "I need to understand it to be able to talk about it."
Cardenas denied that the mayor or the Health Department had a role in the delay.
Cardenas pledged to hold an "all-day" hearing, if necessary, to "address it properly" either later this month or the first week of August.
Quenjana Adams, of the Public Health Department, said the department has held hearings on the issue each of the last three years, and put out a new report on it in June.
The department "is proud of the progress made alongside its partners and will continue to keep stakeholders actively engaged in dialog about improving Chicago's mental health system," Adams said, joining in expectations that a Council hearing will be called next month.
"We just want to find out the truth," said Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who took part in a news conference with protesters before Monday's committee meeting. "We were promised transparency. We were promised accountability" on how the city dealt with the closures, and he said they had received nothing.
Munoz and fellow Progressive Reform Caucus Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Scott Waguespack (32nd) sponsored a resolution in April calling for hearings on the matter. Munoz called Cardenas' pledge to hold a hearing in the next few weeks "a victory for the mental health movement."
In his first city budget two years ago, Emanuel closed six of the city's 12 mental health clinics. He said at the time patients could travel to the remaining clinics, but Carter said Emanuel's move showed a lack of understanding of the fragile nature of those seeking treatment for mental issues in public health.
"It's painful because of how many lives have been affected by the closures," Carter said. "We have lost more than 500 people we can't account for."
One woman who warned that she would be killed by the closings, Helen Morley, died shortly thereafter from a heart attack, Carter said, attributing her death to the stress of the clinic closings.
A schizophrenic patient saw her condition worsen when she changed doctors and her medication was altered, Carter said.
"She was stable," Carter said. "We do not want people to be unstable."
At Monday's news conference, Paulette Mitchell, mother of Josh Marks, a onetime runner-up on the reality series "MasterChef," said her son might have been saved from a 2013 suicide if treatment had been more readily available.
Carter added, "There are so many other stories," and activists are looking for an opportunity to tell those stories and argue for the clinics to be reopened. Some aldermen have argued the same as well.
Carter said the city was actually losing money with the closures because, of about 20,000 homeless people in Chicago, "a good 25 percent struggle with mental illness.
"When you have people who are struggling with mental illness and can't get treatment, don't know where to go, and end up getting arrested," that means police are pulled off the streets to process those arrests instead of fighting crime, Carter said.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman have both charged that Cook County Jail has become a holding center for the mentally ill.
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