North Side community pursues local mental health solution through the vote

Other advocates worry precedent could harm citywide efforts

October 19, 2012

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(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Mary Tinich (left) and Rosemary Tirio are knocking on doors of neighbors such as Jim Neylon of Sauganash until Nov. 6, when some voters will consider a property tax increase that would fund expanded mental health services.

Voters in part of northwest Chicago will get to vote on more than their elected representatives next month; they’ll also be the first in Illinois to consider a new binding referendum to expand mental health services in the North River community.

In particular, they’ll choose whether to tax themselves to pay for some free mental health services, ones that advocates say the government has chipped away.

The measure’s supporters say they hope other neighborhoods follow suit with their own ballot-based solutions, but mental health advocates in other parts of Chicago worry such an approach could weaken the citywide fight for public mental health funding.

The last time Chicago’s mental health services were big in the news was in the spring, when the city closed half of its 12 mental health centers. It was controversial, and people protested, with some staging a sit-in at the Woodlawn clinic on the South Side. But the backlash didn’t stop the closures.

"Is Englewood, where foreclosure rates [are] through the roof, going to pass a property tax increase when people are already underwater paying back mortgages?"
- Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, volunteer organizer for STOP

Activists in North River participated in those protests, but at the same time some of them were pushing to get the funding question on the ballot. Their campaign was successful, so on Nov. 6 North River voters will be asked whether they support a .004 percent increase in property taxes to pay for additional mental health services. Advocates say the increase would amount to about $16 a year for the average North River homeowner. The free services would only be available to people who can prove that they live in the area that’s taxed.

North River residents voted on this issue before, in 2008, as part of an advisory referendum. That year, the vote was a simple poll to see if people liked the idea. Overwhelmingly, they did, with 72 percent of respondents answering ‘yes.’

This year, though, the referendum is binding, a change made possible through state legislation that was signed by Governor Pat Quinn last year. If a majority of people who answer the question vote in favor, the program goes into effect. About 55,000 people living in eight wards will see this on their ballots.

Many expect this year’s referendum to have a similar level of support as before, but some North River residents are deeply concerned about how it might change their community.

North River resident Erin (she declined to give her last name) offered her own reservations. “If there’s not enough people in there from this area, they’ll bring in people from other areas,” she explained. She said she’ll be voting ‘no,’ and her stated reasons underscore a key issue in the debate: should communities start looking after their own when it comes to mental health? And, can every Chicago community afford to tax themselves to do that?

Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a volunteer with Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), isn’t convinced that this approach will work in other Chicago communities.

“Is Englewood, where foreclosure rates [are] through the roof, going to pass a property tax increase when people are already underwater paying back mortgages?” he asked.

Ginsberg-Jaeckle said he knows about the North River advocates and applauds their efforts, but he said the philosophy behind the initiative undermines the fight to restore public mental health funding citywide.

“My worry about it is that we continue to see stark disparity in access to mental health services,” he said, “with certain sections of the city completely left out.”

Most of Chicago’s remaining public mental health clinics are on the South Side, but Ginsberg-Jaeckle said residents there still have fewer places to turn for help, as the area has fewer private clinics than other parts of the city. Ginsberg-Jaeckle likened North River’s ballot measure to conceding defeat over mental health funding to the city, and then pulling up the drawbridge.

But advocates of the North River referendum say that’s not what’s happening. “It’s not going to let the state or the city off the hook in terms of the services that they should be providing,” said Michael Snedeker, Associate Director of the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers. “That would be irresponsible for us to do.”

The Coalition was behind the state’s Community Expanded Mental Health Services Act, which authorizes the creation of a taxing district for this purpose. Snedeker said over the last twenty years, city clinics have become places of last resort because they only care for those deemed “severely mentally ill.”

Snedeker said North River’s program would instead emphasize prevention measures, such as: mental health outreach to schools; services for seniors and war veterans; and grief, family and couples counseling.

“What we’re trying to do is re-establish the idea of community mental  health services,” Snedeker explained, adding that this local approach will let communities decide for themselves what their most pressing mental health needs are.