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Evanston Review, May 22, 2008: Many social service agencies struggling

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By BOB SEIDENBERG bseidenberg@pioneerlocal.com

Staff members who sometimes wore sweaters in Peer Service Inc. offices this past winter weren’t necessarily making a style choice.

“We have people who would like us to have our thermostat set at 72 degrees, but we just can’t afford it,” said agency director Kate Mahoney, talking about the cutbacks that have hit the not-for profit drug prevention and treatment program, which has offices in Evanston and Glenview.

Mahoney wasn’t alone in talking about funding challenges social service agencies face at a recent conference on the issue at Northbrook Village Hall. Lorretta Live, a domestic violence service provider with the Evanston/North Shore YWCA, told representatives that some 607 women across Illinois did not receive services in the past funding year due to budget problems.

A sick feeling

“I’ve stood in the hallway of the Skokie courthouse with many a crying woman and said, ‘We can’t help you today,'” she said. “It’s horrible to be in that position.

“If she doesn’t come back, you always wonder what happened to her.”

Sandra Stumme, representing Metropolitan Family Services in Evanston, said funds have gone flat at the agency, which receives an estimated 67 percent of the funds from government sources. The agency provides a wide range of services for low- and moderate-income families.

While the agency has tried to be more efficient, it still isn’t covering costs, she said.

Recessions take a toll

In tracking five recessions starting with the first between 1973-1975, the study found that giving fell an average of 1.3 percent, adjusted for inflation. In non-recession years from 1966 through 2006, giving has increased an inflation-adjusted 4.3 percent, the report found.

Another report, sponsored last year by the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and The Chicago Community Trust, found that “stagnant and decreased funding,” combined with other changes, “have created financial stress and management challenges for agencies.”

Government funding, “which represents the most significant source of revenue for the sector, is changing and has not kept up with increased costs,” the report concluded. “As a result, competition has intensified for private funding. Yet private philanthropy, such as foundations and United Way, has been unable to fill the gap.”

Agencies compete

“Basically agencies are competing for a finite pool of donated dollars and the costs of living are going up,” said United Way spokeswoman April Redzik, summarizing the findings. “A lot of government services have changed to being more fee for services, forcing agencies to put more money out to run their programs.”

Yet, the problem doesn’t exist across the board and may not have touched down in some places.

“Frankly some communities are faring better than others,” said Maureen DiFrancesca, chief professional officer for United Way of North Shore. The agency has chapter boards in Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, and communities all through the North Shore.

In those communities not faring as well, there’s a question of whether the economy is at cause, “or is there something else that needs to be addressed,” DiFrancesca said. “Maybe even in a more operational way…,” DiFrancesca said.

A record-setting year

For instance, the Evanston Community Foundation, established in 1986, just completed a record-setting year in 2007, bringing in contributions and allowing it to fund a growing number of community initiatives, said executive director Sara Schastok.

Moreover, the great bulk of contributions, approaching 80 percent, come from individuals, Schastok noted.

“The biggest thing right now is for organizations that depend a lot on government funding,” she said. “That funding is down, and the way of funding in the state is to look at more reimbursement for direct services as opposed to really supporting agencies and the work they do in the communities.”

Demand for those services, meanwhile, is up, the United Way said in its report.

The report, for instance, notes such trends as a 14 percent growth in five years in the number of people living in poverty, and an 84 percent growth in 10 years in the number of working poor families living in the suburbs. Growth in the over 65-population, is expect to have doubled by 2030. And the number of individuals released from state prisons annually who return to Chicago is approaching 20,000.

Agencies such as Peer Services try to meet many of these needs, providing drug treatment and education programs designed to direct clients away from further trouble. With the sluggish economy, however, the agency is seeing slowed payments from the state as well, Mahoney said. As a result, the agency had to set up a line of credit and borrow money to meet expenses, she said.

The agency also has closed one of its satellite offices in Evanston and has left three vacant positions unfilled.

“We’re trying to keep our direct services up,” Mahoney said, “but it’s been a struggle.”

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