Evanston social services may face severe budget cuts

Emilia Barrosse

Melba Swoyer has a reason to worry. In her four years as the director of finance and development for the Evanston Housing Opportunity Development Corporation, Swoyer has never faced a potential 25 percent budget cut, as proposed by the budget submitted to the Evanston City Council by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz in December.

“Right now with that funding, we help people recover and be successful,” she said.

At the HODC, Swoyer and her colleagues provide affordable housing to adults recovering from mental illnesses, totaling 13,000 hours of mental health services a month. Swoyer said budget cuts could be devastating.

“Our organization fills a gap in the community because we’re providing services and stability,” she said. “If we didn’t, a lot of these people would be homeless and more dependent on other services like emergency rooms and shelters. There would be much more of a burden on the community that we are trying to help.”

But HODC is just one of the many local social services that would be affected by the proposed cuts. In the original proposed budget, $200,000 would be cut from the Evanston Mental Health Board, which funds all of the social services within the city. The council recently decided to put $100,000 back into the funding, still implementing major cuts, said Ald. Don Wilson (4th).

“It’s a difficult position that we’re in,” Wilson said. “We’ve chosen to try to get the budget balanced without any tax increases, and we’re going to try to stick to that.”

One major obstacle to providing funding for local social services groups is the state’s under-funding of human services, said John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago.

“Illinois needs to reform its tax system so it can adequately support these things with state funding and state programs,” Bouman said. “It makes local governments end up having to deal with them themselves.”

Wilson said Evanston hasn’t received much funding from the state to continue the programs, making human services groups more dependent on local governments for funding.

In addition to providing basic services, social service organizations are essential for economic development as they provide jobs, said Sara Schastok, president and CEO of the Evanston Community Foundation. Nearly 40 percent of Evanston adults work within city limits, providing an increased incentive for the council to keep the job pool vibrant, Schastok said.

“It helps bring people together here and concentrate on the health of our community,” Schastok said.

Bouman said a reduction in funding and services is especially difficult because the organization’s constituents could end up homeless without proper supervision and care.

“You’ll have people having to interact with the police, or you’ll have them outdoors affecting the quality of life in the community,” Bouman said. “You’d almost certainly have emergency medical needs.”

If services are cut, people would have to turn to other resources to find help, Swoyer said.

“If they don’t have those services, they’re going to go into the broader community to get them,” Swoyer said. “It’s going to create a lot more money that Evanston’s going to have to spend that wouldn’t be necessary if these cuts weren’t made.”

The council will vote on the final draft of the budget, which seeks to close a more than $9.5 million spending deficit, on Feb. 22. [email protected]