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Proposed Federal Cuts Could Widen Gaps in Social Safety Net

A loss of Community Development Block Grant funding would hit Oak Park's most vulnerable.

On a quiet street south of the Eisenhower Expressway, Robert Diamond, Ken Weber and Dan Parker live together in a quaint, 1900s-era house.

Diamond and Weber have lived in this neighborhood for around 14 years; Parker for around 10.

They watch television together, eat meals together, garden together, bake cookies together, set the table and go places together — all under the watchful and devoted eyes of Terrence Nichols, their shared living companion.

In short, they’re a family.

Diamond, Weber and Parker live in a group home, one of seven operated in Oak Park and River Forest by Seguin, a Cicero-based nonprofit striving to integrate people with developmental disabilities into society.  

Patricia Parker, Dan’s mother, said living with his pals and Terrence has been crucial to the physical and emotional well-being of her son, who is blind and deaf,  spends most of his waking hours in a wheel-chair and has a seizure disorder.

“When Terrence brings Danny in, Danny wraps his arms around him and rubs his head. He loves Terrence,” said Patricia Parker, who lives in River Forest. “It’s comforting that he knows him and his needs. (With him here) I know that Dan will be okay if something should happen to me, and that's huge.”

The money it takes to maintain and restore the Oak Park and River Forest group homes — the recent improvements in this house include the addition of an alarm and fire sprinkler system and improvements in handicap accessibility — largely comes from Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, a nearly 40-year-old federal program that serves as a social safety net of sorts for hundreds of low and moderate income families throughout Oak Park and neighboring communities and millions of others throughout the United States.

But the holes in that safety net may be growing larger as Congress weighs whether or not to take up President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget, which includes a reduction of CDBG funding by 7.5 percent – roughly $300 million.

Another alternative? A GOP –backed proposal that would eliminate the program entirely, at a savings of $4.4 billion.

Communities Develop With Federal Funds

Signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1974, CDBG funding addresses critical social, economic, and environmental problems in American cities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which handles the program.

Its objective is to develop viable urban communities by providing money for decent housing and expanded economic opportunities, principally for low- and moderate-income people.

A complex formula is used to ascertain the amount of funding communities with a population of 50,000 or more, such as Oak Park, will receive.

This year, village officials anticipate receiving more than $2 million.

Village President David Pope, a member of the Leadership Committee that helps establish policy direction for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said while Obama’s proposal to slash CDBG funding is a bitter pill, the plan proposed by the Republicans is among the most serious threat he’s heard.

“The more Draconian cuts would result in a big shift away from the federal government’s historic support… for CDBG. These services are needed now more than ever,” Pope said. “This would be devastating for our community.”

Deep, 'Painful' Cuts

James Haptonstahl, senior vice president of the Seguin Foundation, said the threat of major cuts comes at a grim time for social service agencies, which have been challenged by a bad economy and a growing need for services — all taking place within a state plagued by fiscal crisis. 

The situation amounts to “financial tsunami that threatens the viability of agencies that serve society’s most vulnerable citizens.”

“We would have to decide whether to reduce the staff we have on deck to ensure that we can fix a leaky roof,” he said.

Located just a few miles from the Oak Park Seguin home is the headquarters for West Suburban PADS, the Maywood-based agency offering shelter and support services for the area’s homeless.

Lynda Schueler, the agency’s executive director, said West Suburban PADS hasn’t had to cut services before. But the proposed cuts to CDGB and AmeriCorps, which supplies the agency with volunteers, have her reeling.

She said the agency’s Maywood support center would likely have to cut back its hours, and several programs aimed at curbing homelessness would end abruptly.

“This would be painful. I do not want to make those decisions,” she said.

At the Children’s Clinic, which provides dental, medical and social services to children from infancy to age 18, the operating hours are already scaled back — which executive director Elizabeth Lippitt chalks up to the economic downturn.

Losing federal money would be especially troubling, Lippit said. Visits to the clinic have increased and Medicaid payments hardly cover the clinic’s costs for performing some dental work  — that’s to say nothing of the role that good oral health plays in the long-term health and well-being of children.

"If this funding isn't provided, the overall health of low-income children will go down for sure," Lippitt said.

Hope through legislation? 

At least two federal lawmakers representing Oak Park say they will do their part to ensure that CDBG funding is strong.

Christina Mulka, a spokesman for Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said in an e-mail he will continue to be a champion of the CDBG program. 

“He knows how important it is for the communities who have benefitted from the program particularly in these difficult economic times.... Senator Durbin will be working to ensure that there is a viable CDBG program and that communities have the support they need,” Mulka said.

Ira Cohen, a spokesman for 7th District Representative Danny Davis, who represents Oak Park, will do his best to oppose any cuts.

“They would hurt those who are least able to withstand the impact of these cuts. These are programs that are crucial to the well-being of the 7th Congressional District,” Cohen said.  

Repeated attempts by phone and e-mail seeking comment from Kate Dickens, spokeswoman for U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, went unanswered.

Uncertain Future

Patricia Parker said if the Seguin program dissolves, she'd be forced to make a tough decision — bring Dan home or send him to a state institution. 

Each choice is troubling and rife with issues, from logistics to quality of care. 

But Parker said she would lean toward bringing him home and decidedly not to an institution.

It's about personal attention and qaulity of care. 

"If you ask Dan's doctors how he is still here, they would say it's the quality of his care," Parker said.

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