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Human services cuts devastating Southern Illinois

biss forby carbondaleSouthern Illinois is disproportionately affected by the state’s budget impasse, with numerous counties south of Interstate 70 reeling from the loss of mental and public health services, growing wait lists for treatment and increased uncertainty for families, children and seniors.

That was the alarming message from panels of social service and health care providers who testified before the Senate’s Human Services Committee last week at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, is chairman of the committee and traveled to Carbondale for the hearing. Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, joined Biss to listen to the providers.

“It’s like my house is on fire. I’m calling the fire department, and they’re saying, ‘I can’t help you in November, John. I can help you in March, though,” said John Markley, CEO of Centerstone of Illinois, which offers mental health services in southern Illinois. “And meanwhile my house is burning to the ground.”

The effects are felt even deeper, the providers testified, stressing the loss of knowledgeable health professionals from rural areas, plummeting staff morale at social service agencies and the economic chokehold the impasse has had on the region through resulting unemployment and the loss of workers who pursue jobs elsewhere because of the uncertainty.

Cathy McClanahan, executive director of the 43-year-old Women’s Center in Carbondale, said the agency relies on state funding to operate and that 24 people could lose their jobs because of how thin the center’s resources are stretched.

The Women’s Center is a domestic violence shelter and rape crisis center. There are only six other programs like it south of Interstate 70; others have closed because of the budget impasse, McClanahan said. The Women’s Center provides services in surrounding counties and elsewhere in the state when needed.

biss HS hrng 110915“We have never experienced a problem this significant since we started offering services,” McClanahan said, adding that the loss of The Women’s Center in southern Illinois could lead to an increase in violence, abuse and death.

At the southern tip of Illinois is Cairo, a river town of about 2,600 people that grapples with poverty, unemployment, crime and a declining tax base. The public school district is the sixth most impoverished school system in the nation. About 31 percent of Alexander County residents live below the federal poverty line, and 48 percent of them are children.

Agencies that Cairo residents depend on for help have nothing left to cut and nothing left in their reserves to see them through the impasse, Fred Bernstein, executive director of Community Health and Emergency Services, told the Senate panel.

He added that anyone who wants to know what the effects of the budget impasse on social services will look like in other parts of the state in the future should look at Cairo today.

“The decline is visible and painful, and we encourage all of you to go back (to Springfield) with that sense of urgency,” Bernstein said.

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