CITY HALL — Progressive aldermen called for additional funding for mental health services, and activists asked that six shuttered clinics be reopened as a City Council committee debated the issue Tuesday.
Both Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) apologized for voting two years ago to close half of the city's then-12 mental health clinics in budget cuts.
"I want to say that I'm sorry," Sawyer said. "We were told ... that no one was going to be left behind. And I think that obviously was not the case."
"It was probably the worst vote I ever made," Fioretti said. "We were told certain information. And if we would've had other information that vote would never have happened that way."
Fioretti cited the city's claimed savings of $2 million and said those government resources had not been saved, but were spent elsewhere.
"We are spending the dollars," testified Heather O'Donnell, vice president of Thresholds, a mental health agency. "We are spending the money at the jail and in homeless shelters" and in other social services. "We are spending the money in the wrong places, and we are chasing our tail."
The Progressive Reform Caucus called for increased spending on mental health, Fioretti said, and cited Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has said much of the population at Cook County Jail suffers from mental health issues.
"It's become the largest mental health facility in the nation," Fioretti said, estimating that 40 to 50 percent of inmates were suffering from mental health issues. "That $2 million could have easily been saved if we had kept the clinics open."
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) agreed, saying, "It's a disgrace, and it's embarrassing."
Dr. Nneka Jones, assistant executive director of the Cook County Jail, testified that an estimated 2,800 of the 9,000 inmates were mentally ill.
"We're in a state of emergency," Jones said, adding that they were working to divert the mentally ill for treatment prior to bond hearings.
Public Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair testified before the Health Committee that of the almost 2,800 people being treated at the clinics before the six closings, more than 400 had been shifted under stable condition to nonprofit community mental-health providers.
Choucair said the city was still treating up to 2,150 people at the six remaining clinics. He added that additional care was being provided under the health expansions called for by the federal Affordable Care Act and pointed to additional city services on HIV and substance abuse.
"What matters most is that residents have access to high-quality care," Choucair said. "This is what a successful strategy looks like."
When Choucair asked if the system was ideal, members of the audience said no. When he asked if it was better than two years ago, they again shouted no.
Yet Choucair maintained that "the mental health system is stronger than what it was."
Activist N'Dana Carter countered that many had fallen through the cracks. "They were left roaming the streets," she said, "a few hundred initially that rolled into thousands."
Carter said Choucair had pledged to maintain levels of care but "it was a promise not fulfilled."
"Dr. Choucair said that everyone would be monitored. Everyone would receive mental health care. No one was monitored. Many have not received mental health care.
"We don't know where a lot of our people have gone," Carter added. "We do know that some of those people have committed suicide.
"This city was devastated," she said, accusing Choucair's claims of consulting with mental health agencies as being a "publicity stunt."
"Smoke and mirrors is fine for the circus, but this is not a circus. This is human lives," Carter said. "We need to have those clinics opened back up."
Carter called for the city to accept insurance at all clinics, for an increase in the mental health budget and for the six closed clinics to be reopened. She asked that voters call aldermen, Choucair and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to request the additional funding and clinic re-openings.
The hearing was scheduled to run until from 1 to 4 p.m., and Carter accused Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the committee, of running a "filibuster" to fill time, after Cardenas and Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) had previously accused Fioretti of monopolizing time.
"I want people to be educated," Cardenas said. "I want people to get the proper help."
Carter said he had "stacked the deck" with medical professionals as witnesses and not actual clinic clients, which resulted in Veronica Morris-Moore and others being called to testify later in the hearing.
A Woodlawn activist who has called for a trauma center on the South Side, Morris-Moore said, "I had to scream and shout in order to sit down at this table." She called it "idiotic" to expect the entire city to be served by six clinics, adding that Choucair's figures were "a bald-faced lie" and that 5,000 were being served by the 12 clinics when half were closed.
Morris-Moore received applause and a standing ovation from the gallery after her testimony, as well as a hug from Carter.
"I stuck a gun in my mouth," said Debbie Delgado, a Logan Square activist who complained that she was sent to a clinic on the far Northwest Side on Peterson Avenue after her neighborhood clinic closed.
"Do you know what it's like to stick a gun in your mouth? No. I do. ... I felt like a failure as a mother," she added, because she couldn't get proper treatment for her son, who was housebound suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following a shooting.
Darryl Gumm, chairman of the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago, accused aldermen of not listening to those complaining of problems in the system, saying, "If you don't solve this problem, it's only gonna get worse."
"The cold, hard reality is that our mental health safety net is in crisis and has been for decades," O'Donnell said. She added that the system is "underfunded" and "the need far exceeds the services provided."
"The mentally ill have been abused, and we have to do something about it," said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th). He pledged to do all he can to "restore these services."
The closed clinics were in Rogers Park, Logan Square, Woodlawn, Auburn Gresham, Morgan Park and Back of the Yards.
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