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One million meals

The Chicago Community Trust announced the first round of grants in its new Unity Challenge (see December’s Newstip).  Grants throughout the six county region will provide an addition 1 million meals at food pantries and soup kitchens, an additional 2,100 beds at 25 area shelters, and stepped-up homelessness prevention. 

Homeless Coalition on stimulus

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless comments in an e-mail on the stimulus packages:  “Not enough has been done to provide affordable rental housing for low-income people.”  And with a tax credit for homebuyers without income limit, “home ownership for the better-off is greatly favored at the expense of housing the poor and homeless.”

“Both [House and Senate] bills contain significant funding for job creation but lack guarantees that a fair percentage of these jobs will go to low income and homeless people.  The final bill should reflect a statement that at least 15 percent of the work hours generated in the stimulus go to the lower income worker.”

And the Senate version includes somewhat more funds to help school districts serve the growing number of homeless students, as well as a funding formula that would favor Illinois.

Attention Congress: Homelessness rising

Homeless shelters around the state are facing increased demand, according to a new report from Housing Action Illinois, and calls for homelessness prevention assistance are up sharply, new figures from  the Chicago Community Trust show.

The figures add to evidence cited recently by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities that homelessness is rising nationally.  And they make the case for more housing spending in the recovery package now being considered by Congress, said Bob Palmer of Housing Action Illinois.

“Our numbers are incredibly high,” said Mike Wasserberg of South Suburban PADS. A year ago the group’s shelters were serving an average of 140 men, women, and children each night; now the figure is regularly reaching 200.

Sites that were sheltering 25 people a night are now getting 40 or 45, he said.

They’re seeing many more families with children who don’t have housing, he said. He cited rising foreclosures and unemployment along with “jobs that don’t provide enough income.”

And where before two or three families might be living together due to economic circumstances — a situation that advocates argue should be counted as homelessness — “now we’re seeing four or five families inhabiting a single residential unit,” Wasserberg said. “Under those kinds of stress…at a certain point it becomes time to depart.”

Increased demand means the group needs more supplies and volunteers. And it comes at a time when individual donors are also struggling, he said. “Our annual appeal was off by almost 30 percent.”

At the San Jose Obrero Mission in Pilsen, Israel Vargas says clients are having a harder time finding employment. He sees people leaving for other cities in hopes of finding work — as well as people arriving from other cities where job searches were unavailing.

Along with interim housing with the goal of getting men jobs and housing, the mission serves as an emergency shelter when temperatures go below freezing. And the winter has been harsh. “The weather has been a major factor,” Vargas said.

A summary of the economy recovery proposal released by the House Appropriations Committee last week (pdf) includes $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention assistance — three-fourths the amount requested by housing advocates — but no additional funds for Housing Choice Vouchers.

Housing Action Illinois and other advocates are calling for 200,000 new vouchers in order to help people stay in their homes in the growing recession. New vouchers “are really needed to create more stable housing options for vulnerable households,” Palmer said.

At the state level, housing advocates are hoping Illinois will pass a budget and replace recent funding fixes with more sustainable solutions. The state’s emergency food and shelter fund was reduced in last year’s budget crisis.

The homeless prevention fund, which provides families with short-term help with rent and utilities, has remained steady at $11 million a year. But in 2006 its funding was shifted from the state’s general revenue fund to a portion of the Illinois Affordable Housing Trust Fund — a net loss for housing resources. And since the trust fund gets money from the real estate transfer fee, and home sales are down dramatically, this year funding from other human services was diverted to homelessness prevention.

According to the Chicago Community Trust’s Metro Chicago Vital Signs report, calls for homelessness prevention assistance in the Chicago area were 50 percent higher last month than in December 2007.

With homelessness growing, “Illinois needs to find a way to pass a fiscal year 2010 budget that provides an adequate safety net for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness,” Palmer said.

Rising need for food and shelter

The Chicago Community Trust has launched a $3 million initiative to help food pantries and homeless shelters respond to sharply rising need.

With its new Unity Challenge, the community foundation is providing a 2-to-1 match for donations up to $1 million to the grant fund, which will help nonprofits build capacity to meet basic human needs.

The Trust has also initiated a new monthly report, Metro Chicago Vital Signs, which tracks rising unemployment, hunger, homelessness and foreclosures in the metropolitan area.

According to the December report, from September 2007 to September 2008, the metropolitan area’s unemployment rate rose from 4.9 percent to 6.6 percent, and foreclosure filings doubled, reaching over 14,000 in the third quarter of this year. The number of individuals using food pantries has risen by a third, and calls for homelessness prevention are rising, reaching nearly 6,200 in October.

The food pantry at St. Columbanus Church, 331 E. 71st, where the Obama family volunteered on Thanksgiving, has seen 33 to 50 percent more people coming in for food, said director LaVerne Morris. “It’s just the economy,” she said. “People are losing their jobs. And if they do find another job, they’re not making the kind of money they were making.

“They’ve gone from making a decent salary to making minimum wage, and the rent hasn’t gone down, gas, lights, taxes, nothing else goes down. A lot of people are working every day and still can’t make ends meet — especially if they have children to feed.”

For the church’s food pantry, costs are going up too. The disposal company is charging for increased garbage pickup, the electric bill went up when an additional refrigerator was added, and just the increased expenditure for grocery bags adds up, Morris said.

Hundreds of nonprofits that are funded by the Trust “report a surge of need for food, housing, and employment — and a desperate need for resources to respond,” said Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Trust. “Building on our 93-year legacy of philanthropy, we are taking a vigorous role in supporting the region’s most vulnerable citizens today, just as we did during the Great Depression.”

Donations to the Unity Challenge can be made by check or online. The first round of grants from the fund will be announced in February.

At St. Columbanus, the attention brought by the Obama family has also attracted badly-needed volunteers, Morris said. “Most of our volunteers are senior citizens, and they need help.” Indeed, the family’s Thanksgiving visit meant “four extra people helping, and we needed it.” She adds that the Greater Chicago Food Depository and neighborhood food pantries all need additional volunteers.

Housing group awaits promised funding

Housing Opportunities for Women is on track with renovation of a supportive housing building in Rogers Park — and “really hopeful” that Governor Blagojevich will sign legislation reversing his veto of supportive housing funds, said Jen Patterson of HOW.

A representative of the governor’s office is expected at HOW’s annual Harvest of Hope dinner (Wednesday, October 29, 5:30 p.m. at Loyola University’s Crown Center, 1234 W. Loyola).

Renovation of a long-troubled subsidized building — profiled by Newstips in July — should be done by the end of the year, Patterson said. Some units are being made accessible, a laundry room is being added, and an office for supportive services is being built.

With funding restored, HOW would provide case management, employment assistance, child and youth services, and substance abuse recovery services, Patterson said. HOW clients include survivors of domestic abuse, some with issues of substance abuse, mental illness and physical disabilities.

The building was purchased in June after the state assured HOW of funding for supportive services. Weeks later — following the governor’s amendatory veto of the state budget — the group learned the funding was being withdrawn.

At the end of September the Senate approved a House measure restoring $4 million in supportive services funding for housing providers, including $200 thousand for the HOW project, which Patterson said would provide services for 50 to 60 adults and children. The measure now awaits Blagojevich’s signature.

Call for Senate override

Advocates for supportive housing and other human services will rally at the Thompson Center at noon tomorrow, Tuesday, July 22, calling on the State Senate President Emil Jones to consider joining the house in restoring funds in the state budget. 

Last week the House voted to override $420 million of Governor Blagojevich’s vetoes, including $4 million for additional supportive housing (see last week’s Newstip). 

Cuts with costs

Newstips reports on the potential impact of the Governor’s veto of new supportive housing funding on an affordable housing rescue effort by Women’s Opportunities for Housing in Rogers Park.

“It’s a short-term cut with a long-term cost,” said HOW executive director Britt Shawver.  More at Newstips.

Another ill-timed cut:  Blagojevich cut funding for legal aid (through the Attorney General’s Office via the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation) from $5 million to $2 million.

Pointing to the rise in mortgage fraud and foreclosure cases, State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg says (in a release [pdf] from the Illinois Equal Justice Campaign), “The legal aid system in Illinois was already in crisis mode.  Now with this funding cut, an urgent situation has been made significantly worse, to the point where many communities will be left without legal aid services.”

Foreclosure filings in Illinois have risen 42 percent in the past year, putting the state in the top ten of the worst-hit states in the nation.

According to the Campaign: “Legal aid organizations in Illinois have been woefully underfunded for years with less than 300 legal aid lawyers available to help the more than 1.2 million Illinois residents living in poverty. Out of the ten most populous states, Illinois ranks near the bottom when it comes to legal aid funding, spending $3.5 million compared to the average of $10.6 million.”

Now Blagojevich is taking the appropriation back down to the 2005 level.  He’s also cut the budget for the Attorney General’s office, a last-resort resource for housing groups trying to save families’ homes, by 25 percent.

Small cut, big cost

The $4 million in new supportive housing for the homeless cut last week by Governor Blagojevich isn’t much compared to hundreds of millions cut from health care and higher education; the $200 thousand elimated from Housing Opportunities for Women is just slightly more than the Governor’s new salary, after his 7.6 percent pay hike. But it could jeapordize HOW’s effort to stabilize a troubled building in Rogers Park — and to bring independence to formerly homeless families.

“It’s a short-term cut with a long-term cost,” said Britt Shawver, executive director of HOW.

The funds were to provide supportive services in an affordable housing preservation project — a 25-unit subsidized Rogers Park building that Shawver said was “very troubled, with dealing and gang activity.” The building is across the street from an elementary school.

With full support from local elected officials, funding for HOW was included in the Illinois Department of Human Services budget and passed by the House and Senate in May. On June 30 the group closed on the building. On July 10 they were informed their funding had been eliminated.

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