Homeless Shelter Fears Cutbacks Amid Budget Stalemate

Sep 21, 2015

Lesly Wicks, Hope Haven executive director

If you have schizophrenia and depend on supportive housing, you could soon be on the streets again. That's because a program that funded housing for mentally ill people is a victim of the budget stalemate.

Illinois is about to enter its fourth month without a spending plan because Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-led General Assembly can't agree on a range of fiscal issues.

As a result, funding ended for the Department of Human Services' Permanent Supportive Housing program.

In DeKalb County, 12 people in this program reside in Hope Haven's main building. They live in single-occupancy rooms where they have access to continuous care.

Hope Haven Executive Director Lesly Wicks says funding for this unit was cut by 50% in July. Wicks says she's doing everything she can to make sure all 12 residents can stay. But losing half of her $84,000 grant is daunting.

"Literally, that would mean putting six people out on the streets," Wicks says. "Six people who are getting 24-hour supportive services, with psychiatric care."

Wicks says the program mirrors a national one. "It's evidence-based and proves to be the most cost-effective way of serving the most severely homeless people in our country."

Wicks says the state will end up paying more if funding isn't restored. She begins with the $4,000 yearly cost of housing one person in the program. "If we were to put that person in prison, that costs the state of Illinois about $38,000 a year," Wicks says. "Or they get picked up, put into a psychiatric unit, and end up being dumped in a nursing home at a cost of $62,000 a year."

Wicks adds the supportive housing program is working. "Since January, when we moved the people in, they've all remained housed."

If the residents had to leave, according to Wicks, they'd be in jail in a week. "Because they'd have to resort to petty crime in order to survive," she says.

Right now, much of Illinois government continues operating because of court action. This includes a federal judge's order to keep serving children who are wards of the state. Wicks says advocates for mentally ill people are pushing for similar judicial action.

"Some of the budget cuts are actually breaking the law," she says.

Wicks says Hope Haven has always had generous support from the community. She says they can hold out for another six months before she has to cut programs. By then it will be the middle of winter, when the demand for another service goes up: emergency shelter.

"When it gets cold, we have a no-turn-away policy," Wicks says, noting they sometimes ignore their capacity rules. "We put sleeping bags on the floor; we'll do whatever it takes."

Another concern during the state budget stalemate is staffing. "Right now everyone's nervous," Wicks admits. She insists that no one will get laid off -- at least for now -- because Hope Haven built up a small reserve of cash.

Nevertheless, around Christmas she'll issue an appeal to Hope Haven's donors for additional help. Until then, she hopes a court will order the state to pay its share of the supportive housing program.