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Geneseo Republic - Geneseo, IL
  • Deadbeat Illinois: Charity owed millions is turning people away

  • Chicago social worker Frank Harris and his staff have felt the pain of turning away even more people seeking treatment for their drug addictions as Lutheran Social Services of Illinois has taken steps to deal with funding cuts and chronic payment delays from state government.
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  • Editor's Note: This is the latest installment in the Deadbeat Illinois series, where reporters from GateHouse Illinois newsrooms examine the real-world effects of the state's failure to pay its bills. Each Monday, we'll share the stories of those affected. See more on the Deadbeat Illinois Facebook page.
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    Chicago social worker Frank Harris and his staff have felt the pain of turning away even more people seeking treatment for their drug addictions as Lutheran Social Services of Illinois has taken steps to deal with funding cuts and chronic payment delays from state government.
    "Who wants to be known as the state that can't help those who need help the most?" he asked.
    As the Kenmore Center treatment facility Harris supervises was forced to lay off 20 percent of its staff over the past few years, Lutheran Social Services reduced the number of substance abusers it was able to treat in the Chicago area by almost 1,200 a year.
    The 5,630 people served in fiscal 2008 dropped to 4,464 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012.
    It's likely that many people turned away by Kenmore whaven't been able to find timely treatment elsewhere.
    "They're much more likely to relapse if they don't have a place to go," said David Jensen, chief operating officer of Lutheran Social Services.
    The Des Plaines-based nonprofit is one of the largest charitable agencies in the state, employing more than 2,000 people at 83 sites statewide. The workers provide everything from drug treatment, Head Start classes and foster-care case management to at-home care for older adults and people with developmental disabilities.
    But more than half of the agency's funding comes from state and federal sources — the state is the single largest payer — so the agency and many of its 108,000 clients have felt the pinch.
    Since 2008, the amount the state owes the agency has skyrocketed from $5 million to as much as $11 million, or 10 percent of its $112 million total annual revenues.
    Ltheran Social Services is grateful for the state funding and grateful for the 67 percent increase in the state's personal income-tax rate in 2011. Without the increase, the financial problems probably would be worse, agency officials said.
    But chronic payment delays and actual funding cuts have led to borrowing, layoffs, program cutbacks and deferral of repairs to the agency's buildings, they said.
    The employee pension plan was frozen about four years ago and replaced with a defined-benefit program, similar to a 401(k) plan. The agency hasn't been able to provide a matching contribution the past two years. Employees have gone without raises for several years, Jensen said.
    Page 2 of 2 - Harris, director of clinical services at Kenmore Center in Chicago, has seen 14 of his co-workers laid off over the past six years, leaving the 50 remaining workers scrambling to provide attention to adults in a 20-bed detoxification unit, a 16-bed rehabilitation unit and a 17-bed halfway house.
    The state funding situation prompted Lutheran to close its Men's Residence South, a 28-bed halfway house on Chicago's south side for recovering drug addicts, in November after serving hundreds of people over the past 33 years.
    Lawmakers often tell Lutheran Social Services officials the agency's services are valuable. Lawmakers also say that the General Assembly first must come up with a solution to the state's growing pension liabilities, according to Jennifer DeLeon, Lutheran's director of government relations.
    The agency doesn't favor one pension solution over another, she said. She implores lawmakers not to wait until the pension crisis is solved before they tend to the needs of human-service providers.
    "I tell them, 'By the time you do that, I hope we're still around,'" she said.
    Jo Ann Dollard, the agency's director of communications, said its programs are cost-effective.
    "When we're not providing these folks services, they will be served in an emergency room, which is not a good solution," she said.
    Dean Olsen can be reached at (217) 788-1543. Follow him at twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.
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