PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday September 23rd, 2015, 4:08pm

Homeless Illinois Youth Rally For A State Budget Solution (VIDEO)

Homeless youth, service providers and state lawmakers rallied for a fair budget at the Thompson Center on Wednesday. Progress Illinois provides highlights from the event. 

Homeless Chicago youth rallied against the nearly three-month-old state budget impasse on Wednesday, urging Illinois lawmakers to break the stalemate and fully fund the services they rely on.

Joining the youth at the Thompson Center were homeless service providers as well as two Democratic state representatives from Chicago, Will Guzzardi and Greg Harris.

Michael Brown, 19, was one Chicago youth at the rally who expressed worry that he could end up on the streets again if the shelter he lives in closes because of the state budget situation.

Brown has been a resident at the Ujima Village youth shelter, located on Chicago's South Side at 500 E. 37th St., for the past year and a half.

"Without Ujima, at the end of the day, I wouldn't have many places to go or many options," he told Progress Illinois. "Before I came to Ujima, I used to sleep on the train or I used to go sleep under the bushes in the park. My mother, me and her have issues to where I couldn't go back to her house, so Ujima really came through and helped me."

Local homeless service providers have not been paid by the state since July 1, when Illinois entered the 2016 fiscal year without a budget. As a result, 77 percent of Illinois homeless youth service providers have been, or will soon be, forced to reduce or eliminate services, according to a recent survey by housing advocacy groups, including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Legislation that would authorize state spending for human services, including programs serving homeless youth, is expected to go before the Illinois House Executive Committee on Thursday, Harris said.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner opposes the spending bill, SB 2046, which cleared the Senate earlier this month. The administration contends that the Democrat-backed legislation is an "attempt to stick the taxpayers of Illinois with a massive tax hike without reform."

Harris said he will push for the spending bill's passage, because the state's most vulnerable citizens, including homeless Illinois youth, don't deserve to be caught up in the Springfield budget fight. 

"There are a lot of people across the state of Illinois who count on (state services) to help them get through their daily lives, and we can't let them down," he stressed. 

Advocates also said it is in the state's financial interest to adequately fund homeless services. Cutting the programs would likely mean increased spending on incarceration, emergency health care and other costly services in the long term, they said.

Brown said some services at Ujima have been impacted by the budget stalemate. For example, he said the shelter recently reduced the number of public transportation fare cards it gives out to those who stay there.

"Because we don't have bus cards, we have to risk our safety, risk us getting put in jail for the night just because we want to hop the train because we have to go somewhere," Brown said. "Or we'll have to ... beg (bus drivers) to let us on the bus because we don't have bus cards."

Ujima Village is operated by Unity Parenting and Counseling, which provides foster care and services for homeless youth on Chicago's South Side.

Unity Parenting and Counseling's Executive Director Flora Koppel said Ujima Village has been able to operate during the state budget impasse thanks to funding from the city of Chicago. But Koppel said the state will ultimately have to reimburse Chicago for that money.

"I just don't know how long (the city would provide funding) if the state said, 'We're not giving you any money, Chicago,'" Koppel said, adding that Ujima Village would have to shut down without funding from either the city or state. 

If the shelter closes, "all the young people -- and we get over 150 a year that we serve -- would be back on the streets, would be subjected to violence, would be subjected to hunger, would be subjected to exploitation," she stressed.

Unity Parenting and Counseling also runs a transitional housing program for families, which could be forced to shut down if the organization does not receive state funding by December, Koppel said.

"The ironic part about that is the state of Illinois would lose the half a million dollars of federal funds that our program does get but requires a match," Koppel said. "So we're actually putting people on the street, making them homeless, making families fall apart while we lose half a million dollars of funding that could be coming into the state."

Here's more from Koppel plus comments from Guzzardi, Harris and Calvin Curtis, who gets help from the Broadway Youth Center:

Guzzardi expressed frustration over the state budget impasse and the impact it is having on vulnerable Illinoisans. 

"Frankly, it breaks my heart to be standing here and hearing from these young people and to have to say to them, 'I am going to do everything in my power to pass a fair and equitable budget, but I have a pretty strong feeling that the governor and the Republicans in the legislature are going to keep that from happening,'" Guzzardi told the crowd. 

"I sincerely hope that we will be able to persuade those on the other side that this isn't an issue of dollars and cents -- this is an issue of human decency and human dignity, and that we'll do the right thing and pass SB 2046 and fully fund programs that we need," he added.


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