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'How Do You Sleep At Night?' Social Workers Furious Over State Budget War

By Patty Wetli | October 15, 2015 6:21am
 Nonprofit organizations urged lawmakers to end the budget impasse, which is decimating social services.
Nonprofit organizations urged lawmakers to end the budget impasse, which is decimating social services.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

LINCOLN SQUARE — Representatives from more than a dozen social service agencies gathered Wednesday at the Albany Park Community Center to collectively call for an end to a state budget impasse that's starving their organizations of critical funding.

"I have one question for the governor: How do you sleep at night?" said Bianca Berkhia, director of development at La Casa Norte, which serves homeless teens and families.

Many nonprofits are reeling not only from cuts announced by Gov. Bruce Rauner in January but from the subsequent failure of the Legislature to pass a budget, meaning the state isn't disbursing to agencies what remaining money they're due.

"I'm running on fumes," said Gianfranco Farruggia, founder of Community Human Services Inc., which helps troubled youths.

His was a common refrain: staff layoffs, mounting bills, suspended or vastly curtailed services and no end in sight. Some agencies have already shuttered, with more on the brink of closing their doors.

"We've been working to get a line of credit since January. For us to survive until we get a new governor, new leaders ...," trailed off Brenda Swartz, president of Concordia Place. "I don't know if these nonprofits will still be around. Who is going to serve these people?"

Among services at risk: early childhood intervention, job training, adult literacy, senior care, citizenship classes and housing assistance.

"These programs are collateral damage in a philosophical dispute," said Becky Raymond, executive director or Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition.

People like Alejandra Gonzalez are the ones who've been caught in the crossfire.

After studying English for the past two years at Albany Park Community Center, Gonzalez said she had finally become fluent enough to help her daughter with her homework.

Gonzalez' classmates listed the ability to communicate with teachers, doctors and potential employers — and the confidence and pride that accompanied that ability — among the reasons they'd pushed themselves to learn English.

But on Aug. 31, all English as a second language and GED classes at the center came to a halt.

"It's all gone. It's heartbreaking," said Mary Jude Ramirez, an English teacher at the center. "It's being dismantled to the point I don't know if they'll be able to put it back together."

Victoria Garcia, another Albany Park English student, had a simple message for politicians in Springfield: "We want our classes back to improve our English to get jobs."

Among the cuts most galling to service providers were those related to early childhood programs. Research consistently demonstrates that the foundation for later success is built during a person's earliest years, Swartz said.

Failing to provide needed assistance to the city's youngest residents is "mortgaging our future," she said.

City Treasurer Kurt Summers appeared at the gathering and spoke not only of the detrimental social effects of the budget impasse but the harm it's causing economically.

"This stalemate is most severely impacting our state's residents who need the help the most," Summers said. Slashing programs that improve people's opportunity to find jobs "hurts our city," he added, and the layoffs hitting social service agencies only compound the problem — people without an income aren't going to be investing in the economy.

"This impasse has to stop," he said.

Wednesday's meeting was the first step toward agencies combining their outreach efforts to state government officials.

"We're all in the same boat," said Rodney Walker, executive director of the Albany Park Community Center. "We do have the power, we just need to use our voices."

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