The Chicago Department of Public Health would consolidate its 12 city mental health clinics into six sites, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed 2012 budget.
The city is facing a $635 million shortfall in next year’s budget and Emanuel is proposing that staffing for the Department of Public Health be cut by $7.2 million dollars, 34 percent less than last year’s budget.
According to the budget, this is part of the overall 17.7 percent, or $19.4 million reduction in funding for community services departments, which encompass the Department of Public Health, the Commission on Human Relations, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Department of Family and Support Services, and the Chicago Public Library.
Ndana Carter was one of about 40 mental health activists chanting loudly outside of the city council chambers while aldermen reacted to Emanuel’s budget address.
“We are the 99 percent,” they chanted, echoing the slogan of Occupy Chicago protesters who assert that the nation’s economy is not currently benefitting the majority of the population. “We deserve a say in how our money’s spent.”
“They save a dime and spend a dollar,” said Carter.
Carter, a member of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) said that proposed cuts to mental healthcare could increase costs for the city and endanger public safety.
“If a police officer arrests a mental patient and has to take them to the hospital, the police officer has to stay with them until they are released,” said Carter. “That’s downtime. That’s the time when people could be killed, houses could be robbed.”
“Police could be taken off the streets to babysit mental patients,” said Carter.
Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields said that police have seen an increase in homeless people “camping out in police stations during inclement weather.”
He said that this could pose a health hazard for police officers at these stations because of airborne illnesses.
“Police stations should not be mental facilities and homeless shelters,” he said.
The Mental Health Movement is a coalition made up of members of STOP, the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME ) Council 13.
Badonna Reingold, a member of the coalition, has been volunteering in mental health care for 30 years. She said she has seen the number of city mental health clinics decrease over that period from 21 to 12.
She is vice chairman of the board at Woodlawn Mental Health Center, one of the clinics Emanuel has proposed closing. Woodlawn survived attempts to close it in 2009, along with three other clinics on the Southside of Chicago because of community opposition.
Cutting city mental health clinics to only six is “a real failure to take responsibility for the healthcare of the city,” Reingold said.
She said she is concerned that changes to city clinics will mean that care will be “skeletal” and “inadequate.”
“I might commit suicide,” said Carter, who needs medication and talk therapy to deal with her depression. She said she has attempted suicide three times in the past and is worried about what would happen to her if reduced resources mean she can’t get her medication.
Carter said that people may turn to illegal drugs to self-medicate or run into legal problems and homelessness because of erratic behaviors associated with some mental health conditions.
“We have a mayor that is irresponsible when it comes to the needs of the sick and the elderly,” said Carter, adding that more than 20,000 people are homeless in Chicago and that “a great majority” of them are mentally ill.
“There are people being put out of mental hospitals that will go straight to prison because they’ll commit a crime so that they can get their medication,” said Carter. “In prison they can get their medication, on the street, they cannot.”
Mental health clinics and hospitals are already facing enormous cuts from the state government. The state has cut spending on mental health by $113.7 million from 2009 to 2011 and closed three psychiatric hospitals, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Illinois.
Cook County Jail houses more psychiatric patients than all state operated psychiatric hospitals combined, the organization said in a press release.
Activists are also concerned that mayor’s announcement in the budget that seven primary healthcare clinics are being transitioned to “community-based, federally qualified health clinics by July 2012” would open the door to privatization.
The Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) that will take over operations of city clinics in Englewood, Pilsen, Roseland, South Chicago, South Lawndale, Uptown and West Town neighborhoods have not yet been announced.
Officials at the Department of Public Health, which oversees Emanuel’s Healthy Chicago program, did not return calls or emails.
Carter said Emanuel has refused to speak with anyone in the Mental Health Movement about his plans for the city’s clinics before his election, but that she is hopeful that he will listen to the 4,000 letters members of her coalition delivered to his office on Wednesday.
The public hearing on the mayor’s budget will be held on Nov. 2nd at 11 a.m. in the city council chambers according to the Office of the Chicago City Clerk. The budget needs to be approved by a minimum of 26 aldermen by December 31st.