Homeless youth activists rally against budget impasse

Homeless Budget Rally
Rep. Greg Harris (left) and homeless youth activists gather at a rally in front of the James R. Thompson Center. (Ryan Connelly Holmes/Medill)

By Kayla Daugherty
Video by Ryan Connelly Holmes

James Ivory describes himself as many things: a college student, a musician, an activist and a father. But because of the social services he received through a homeless shelter, he no longer needs to include “homeless” in that list.

Ivory is one of the thousands of Illinois youth who have found themselves on the street, without a place to eat, sleep or work. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports that an estimated 20,205 Chicago Public Schools students were homeless during the 2014-2015 school year. They were among the 125,848 Chicagoans who were homeless during that period.

Though Ivory is no longer homeless, the 25-year-old came to a recent rally at the Thompson Center in support of social services funding for homeless youth. The rally, sponsored by the Coalition, drew more than 100 individuals hoping to prove to Gov. Bruce Rauner that homelessness is a huge issue in Chicago and that his proposed social service budget cuts will harm people in dire need of help.

Ivory, along with others who are still homeless, talked about their experiences on the streets.

“I think that the normal person doesn’t understand what it’s like to be really hungry,” Ivory said. “Hunger, loneliness—those things are very depressing.”

The young people who spoke showed that there is no one reason for homelessness. Some young men were kicked out of their homes after coming out as gay, bisexual or transgender. Some with criminal records said they had difficulty obtaining and keeping a steady job. Others just fell on hard times—losing a job or being in a serious accident—and were sent into a devastating downward spiral.

Upcoming vote to restore money

Illinois has gone four months without a state budget, and a vote is scheduled in the House on Senate Bill 2046, which would restore social service funding cut in Rauner’s budget.

(Ryan Connelly Holmes/Medill)

The Senate bill passed in late September but now must be heard in the House on Oct. 20.

Because of the political stakes, Representative Greg Harris (D-Chicago), a sponsor of the bill, and Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) were present at the rally.

The rally also included directors of shelters and transition houses.

Flora Koppel, director of Unity Parenting and Counseling, an agency that runs shelters and transition houses, spoke at the event and brought the issue of finances front and center. She emphasized that while budget cuts might seem like a better solution to the state’s fiscal problems now, the cuts will be more costly over the long term. For instance, Koppel referred to the cost for homeless youth, or children of homeless parents, who end up in the child welfare system—an average of $48,320 a year.

“The cost [for] youth in a state psychiatric hospital, if they really fall apart and disintegrate under all the pressures, is $107,000 over a year,” Koppel added.

She also highlighted the costs of a scenario that is all too likely for homeless youth who might end up stealing to buy food: incarceration. Juvenile detention can cost up to $177,000 annually; Cook County Jail, $52,195 per year; and state prison, $38,268.

In comparison, in fiscal year 2014, Illinois spent less than $2,000 per homeless youth for shelters, programs and other resources, Koppel said. According to her numbers, the cheapest option for the state of Illinois, other than to fund social services, is to pay to bury the homeless—a cost of just over $1,000.

Rep. Harris praised the young people who came to the rally to let their voices be heard.

“This is amazing and it just shows the power of democracy and the power of the youth in America today,” Harris said. “It charges me up even more to go down and [try to] pass legislation tomorrow that will fund homeless youth, early intervention, child care, senior service, people with disabilities, and you know, all the other things people count on to live everyday.”

Harris is still determined to make the appropriations bill permanent. “It funds vital services like early intervention, childhood education and autism,” Harris said.

“A piecemeal bill”

Rep. Steven Andersson (R-Geneva) was one of the legislators who voted against the bill. He said it’s not because he doesn’t see the need, but because he does not believe the bill will fix the problem.

“It is a piecemeal bill. The fact is that we are spending more money than we are taking in,” Andersson said in a phone call. “As sensitive as I am to the situation, the reality is that we can’t fund these programs.”

Andersson, who began serving his first term in January, was surprised by the lack of urgency some of his colleagues had about solidifying a state budget.

“I was expecting that we would get down in the weeds and figure this budget out. It was nothing close to that,” he said. “Interest groups and [committee] chairs came in a parade, telling me how important their programs were. I did not need that. I understand that those things are important. We should have been working on a budget since January 15, since we were signed in.”

Andersson referenced Chicago’s significant debt, as well as the state’s, and worries that the bill restoring funding would be just piling onto this debt. He feels that even if the bill eventually passes, there will not be enough money to fund the programs.

“Passing [Senate Bill] 2046 gives people false hope,” he said. “Passing 2046 will not make them closer to their goals.”

If this appropriations bill is not the answer, lawmakers need to come up with another solution quickly: With winter approaching, the need for shelters and resources is growing.

Photo at top: Rep. Greg Harris (left) and homeless youth activists gather at a rally in front of the James R. Thompson Center. (Ryan Connelly Holmes/Medill)