Future uncertain for southern Illinois homeless agencies
With a growing need from the community and shrinking faith that Illinois will come through with funding, agencies for the homeless remain uncertain about their continued ability to provide services.
One of those groups is Good Samaritan Ministries, a nonprofit organization in Carbondale that has five programs for the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. The organization runs a food pantry, soup kitchen, 30-day emergency shelter, emergency financial assistance program and a two-year transitional house service.
“In the short term, we’re OK,” said Mike Heath, executive director for Good Samaritan. “In the long term, I have no idea.”
The organization received a $70,000 payment from the state to fund operations through its current fiscal year. While the amount of funding matched what Good Samaritan received from the state in the previous year, Heath said the demand for services is rising.
In 2015, the food pantry usage increased by 26.7 percent, serving about 7,000 families, he said. The soup kitchen provided 32,354 meals, 18.8 percent more than its seven-year average. At the same time, Heath said, emergency financial help, a service that provides financial assistance for rent and utilities, was used by 312 people, an increase of 56.8 percent.
The soup kitchen “came within an inch of shutting down” in 2015 because the state hadn’t paid the nonprofit what it was owed, Heath said. And the uncertainty among state lawmakers readying for a new Illinois General Assembly, he said, is worrying.
“With the stopgap ending soon and no new budget, we have absolutely no idea what to expect,” Heath said.
He said state funding has been unreliable, making community donations more crucial to the nonprofit’s budget. Of the $630,000 it takes to run Good Samaritan for a year, Heath said, about half comes from charitable donations and one-fifth from state funding.
An outpour of community support and donations was all that kept the soup kitchen from closing its doors last fall, he said.
“We got through that time because of these people,” Heath said. “They’re really, sincerely trying to help us any way they can.”
But some say relying heavily on community fundraisers and donations is not a viable method for the long-term.
Diana Brawley Sussman, co-chair of The Sparrow Coalition, a partnership of organizations that provide support to homeless and impoverished community members, said it is a matter of time before individual donors are “drained of money.”
The unique problem in southern Illinois, Sussman said, is the people rely heavily on the state for work. A large number in the area work public sector jobs in places like SIU, John A. Logan College, Centerstone and others funded by tax dollars.
“Those people are being laid off left and right,” Sussman said. “When you rely more and more on donations from your community and more and more people in your community are losing their jobs. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Sussman said last year the Southern Illinois Coalition for the Homeless was at risk of shutting down due to the lack of state funding. The organization serves the 24 southernmost counties in the state by providing affordable housing to the homeless and near-homeless through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development assistance program.
The federal government grants the organization about $330,000, said Camille Dorris, the coalition’s executive director. But these funds can only be used for the leases of the properties. The state funds the supportive service programs, which Dorris said are vital for ensuring people don’t end up back on the streets.
“Without the supportive service piece in place, you’re just handing over the keys,” Dorris said. “To come out of poverty, the life skill programs are essential.”
For the 2016 fiscal year, the coalition received $77,000 from the state, which was half of what it received the previous year. The staff went from five people to four, hours were cut and services such as home visits were discontinued.
Properties owned by the coalition also had to be sold off and some houses sat vacant because there were insufficient funds to make repairs, Dorris said.
This year, their grant agreement with the state is back up to $155,000, but so far only half has been received. Dorris said there’s no way to know when and if they will receive the rest of their funding from the state.
“We’re still basically cut in half in terms of our funding at this point,” Dorris said. “It makes it very difficult to plan for the future.”
If Illinois doesn’t pay the rest of the grant to the coalition, their federal funding is also at risk, because HUD requires a 25 percent funding match from local sources.
This doesn’t have to be from the state government, but Dorris said with southern Illinois’ economy in the state it is, it would be unrealistic to expect local governments or community donations to total the amount they would need. Last year, the coalition raised $17,000 from community and charitable donations.
Without federal funding, the affordable housing program would have to be shut down. Come January, when stopgap funding runs out, the coalition may have to consider scaling back services and staff again, Dorris said.
“It’s terrifying to run one of these agencies in Illinois,” Sussman said. “And it’s terrifying for the families who use them.”
A shutdown would mean eviction for families living in the homes, Sussman said, which would put those families back into state assistance and cost the system more money. This, she said, “is penny wise and pound poor.”
“You end up paying more for people than you would if you simply maintained the services that are operating,” Sussman said.
She said these organizations are getting through the budget crisis by the skin of their teeth and generosity of the community.
If the state Legislature doesn’t pass a new budget quickly after the stopgap runs out, Good Samaritan could have to make some hard decisions, Heath said.
“If we don’t have money, we can’t pay people, we can’t buy supplies,” Heath said. “Absolutely we’ll have to make cuts.”
More than anything, the uncertainty surrounding state funding takes its toll on people using these services, Dorris said.
“For those who are already in crisis, not knowing raises a lot of anxieties and questions,” Dorris said. “And that’s the painful thing — we just don’t have those answers right now.”