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Thursday, July 16, 2009 03:32 pm

Service disconnected

Illinois slashes supportive housing programs as feds beef up housing funds

People who arrive at Helping Hands seeking shelter for the night will no longer receive evening case management due to state funding cuts.

Brenda Johnson, executive director of Helping Hands, says officials at the Springfield homeless shelter are simply “trying to control what we have control of” to adjust to a 27 percent cut in funding from the state.

That’s meant relying more heavily on donations from the community, which have been plentiful, making sure to turn off lights in rooms that aren’t being used, not running the washing machine and dryer as often and cutting back on staff hours.

“Everybody is learning that multitasking is the way to keep things rolling,” Johnson says.

It’s also meant that the organization has had to cut back on some case management services, which can include mental health treatment, substance abuse counseling and life skills coaching, and is a critical element of helping people get out of the cycle of homelessness, advocates say.

In the coming months and years, Springfield’s inventory of housing for the poor will increase dramatically thanks largely to commitments by the federal government. In total, Springfield will receive just over $1 million for re-housing and homelessness prevention.

While the federal government is busy injecting unprecedented amounts of money into housing programs, Illinois is scaling back funding to combat homelessness.

This comes just as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent its annual homeless assessment to Congress. The good news in the report was that the overall number of homeless people during a point-in-time count taken in January was down both across the U.S. and locally. In Illinois, homelessness fell 4.9 percent from 2007 to 2008 while Springfield saw its point-in-time homeless count fall 9.6 percent in the same time period, according to the report.

However, the HUD study did reveal an alarming 9 percent increase in the number of homeless families in 2008 over the previous year, mostly from suburban and rural areas. Additionally, HUD reported that members of homeless families lived in transitional housing 10 more nights in 2008 than in 2007, while homeless individuals spent an extra 16 nights in transitional shelters.

“The economic crisis is forcing more families who had previously been well housed into homelessness,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told reporters on a conference call last week.

The trends uncovered by HUD are mirrored in Springfield, says M.E.R.C.Y. Communities executive director Mary Stone.

“Our referrals have tripled in the past few months. We have a lot of people looking for services,” Stone says.

The organization, which provides transitional and long-term housing for at-risk and homeless mothers, also saw its state funding to each of those two programs slashed by about a third.

In the meantime, M.E.R.C.Y. Communities has been able to avoid cutting staff. But the agency also provides the women dozens of support programs including on-site daycare, counseling and mentoring, as well as self-improvement, budget management, yoga and parenting classes.

The future of those services remain unclear as agreements with mental health professionals with whom M.E.R.C.Y. contracts have already been terminated, Stone says. Despite the cuts, the agency will still accept referrals even though Stone concedes they will be able to help fewer women.

“We’re continuing to house people,” Stone says. “We’re trying to respond to their needs.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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