Jerry Stermer links government obstacles with homelessness

Alexandra Finkel

About 225,000 Illinois residents were on welfare in 1996. Fourteen years later, after the program was restructured, only 10 percent remain, said Jerry Stermer, chief of staff to Gov. Pat Quinn, Monday night in the McCormick Tribune Center.

About 60 students, faculty and community members attended the former SESP professor’s speech, “From Idealism to Tea Bags: Social Justice in the Obama Era.”

The speech was the keynote address of the Undergraduate Lecture Series on Race, Poverty and Inequality’s series of events on homelessness in Chicago. The group chose this quarter’s social issue because of the prevalence of homelessness in the Evanston community, said Michael Waxman, the group’s co-chair. The topic gave members the opportunity to co-sponsor the event with Dance Marathon, whose primary beneficiary is StandUp for Kids, a youth homelessness organization, he said.

Stermer was asked to be the keynote speaker because of his connection with NU and high position in local government, Waxman said.

“Given his experience and popularity, we thought he would be a perfect speaker for this kind of social justice issue,” the Weinberg junior said.

In his speech, Stermer covered Illinois social welfare issues, including the state budget and unemployment, and recounted meetings with President Barack Obama and the state legislature.

Stermer, the former executive director of Voices for Illinois Children, spoke in detail of a recent instance when he and Quinn met with legislators to discuss budget cuts. Because of a lack of funding, legislators were in favor of cutting social programs by 50 percent, Stermer said.

“I asked how many people received welfare checks in Illinois on a monthly basis and got complete silence,” he said. “This is nothing our political leaders have focused on. They have focused on getting their members elected and reelected. They are not grasping the detail of public policy.”

Waxman said Stermer’s speech was enlightening.

“It was a great insider political perspective to issues like the budget, education, all of which are issues tied into homelessness,” Waxman said. “Really the message that he conveyed and that we’re trying to convey is that we need to make a fiscal commitment to a segment of the population who don’t have a political voice.”

SESP junior Jeremiah Tillman said he came to the event because he was one of Stermer’s former students and was excited to hear what he had to say.

“He was very effective,” Tillman said. “It was definitely needed.”

Weinberg sophomore Miles Mamon said he was pleased with Stermer’s lecture despite its departure from the series topic.

“It wasn’t really what I expected because I expected it to be about homelessness,” Mamon said. “But the obstacles that the government had to face in the past was really interesting.”Stermer also spoke about the future of local politics.

“Unless we have new resources, whether from the government or from our own taxes or borrowing, we’re not going to make it in Illinois with the level of spending we have right now,” he said. “We are struggling to prevent deep erosion and preserve the core fundamental things we have.”

The next event in the series will be a panel on affordable housing Thursday evening. Waxman said the lecture hopes to raise awareness of the issue and encourage student involvement.

“We want to arm students with facts about the issue so they can inform other people when they leave,” Waxman said. “But we also want to encourage them to get involved in advocating in a political sense and getting involved on campus.”[email protected]