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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 11:55 pm

State’s slow aid payments squeeze Springfield agencies

Social services needs increase while grants stall

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Last week, the Phoenix Center was facing shut-down and displacement of HIV-positive residents, including this 13-month-old girl.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH COPLEY

The trickle-down effect of the gridlock gripping the state government’s budget is approaching crisis level for some local social service agencies.

Last week, the board of directors at the Phoenix Center sent an e-mail to about 200 friends and potential donors saying that the Illinois Department of Public Health has yet to make a single payment on the $195,000 grant awarded to Phoenix in July. Phoenix provides housing for people with HIV and AIDS, and offers testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

The IDPH grant represents a major portion of the center’s operating budget, and as of last week, the IDPH owed Phoenix almost $100,000, according to executive director Jonna Cooley. In the e-mail, she said that board members were considering shortening the facility’s hours, suspending the STD testing clinic, and curtailing services for gay and lesbian youth to avoid displacing HIV-positive residents, including a 13-month-old child.

“We’ve had to seek out a line of credit just to keep the doors open,” Cooley says.

Cooley’s e-mail concluded with a list of state phone numbers, and the suggestion to pass the message on. Late Friday, she learned that funds would be released. She says she expects to get the check any day now.

Other social service agencies haven’t been so lucky. Penny Harris, who runs Fifth Street Renaissance, says her agency has also resorted to opening a line of credit for the first time in the six years she has been there. So far, she says, they’ve tapped it only once and were able to pay it back pretty promptly. Their other cost-cutting measures include letting vacant job positions go unfilled for a while.

Fifth Street Renaissance operates 13 different programs, some statewide, all addressing homelessness, severe poverty or HIV, Harris says. In Springfield, Fifth Street serves approximately 1,300 clients, and that number is growing almost every day, even as the agency’s budget shrinks.

“We have several rental assistance programs, and the numbers are going up as the economy worsens,” she says. “We’re getting more calls for services from families with children and from individuals. So between the number of calls we receive and the number we can handle, the gap is growing.”

Fifth Street relies on a variety of funding sources, and some from the state are lagging more than three months behind. “In 2007, it averaged 60 days late; [in 2008] it’s averaging more than 90” days, Harris says.

Sparc is another agency suffering from the state’s tardy payment schedule. Carlissa Puckett says the state’s tab with the Department of Human Service’s division of developmental disabilities got as high as $2.5 million in December. A payment around Christmas brought it down to about $1.5 million. Like Fifth Street, Sparc had tapped its line of credit. The Christmas payment allowed the agency to repay that debt, but the agency opened another line immediately.

“In our field, it hasn’t been unusual at times to be 60 to 90 days late,” Puckett says. “But being this late is very, very unusual.”

Sparc provides vocational and residential services such as group homes, supportive living facilities and adult foster care for people with developmental disabilities, mental illness and behavioral problems, plus family support services like respite care. Many Sparc clients have multiple diagnoses — for example, mental retardation plus cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

Illinois pays less for such services than any other state, Puckett says, which makes late payments even more painful.

“When the payments are so far behind, it’s a real challenge,” she says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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