Tracking the sequester’s impact on Illinois' poor and working class

April 22, 2013

Sequester causes longer waits for low-income housing

Sheryl Sieling is the Director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program at Cook County Housing Authority, a program provides rental assistance for low income families in Cook County suburbs.

The program doesn’t have enough resources to provide rental assistance to everyone who qualifies. So they keep a waiting list. But since the sequester, very few people are getting taken off that waiting list and put into housing.

When Seiling hears people talk about the sequester, they are usually most worried about longer waits at airports. But she says that doesn’t compare to the wait her clients have had.

“Everyone who is on the waiting list right now has been waiting since 2001,” said Seiling.

Sieling said in lieu of assistance, clients live with family or in substandard housing. She mentioned one woman who has three kids and has bounced from one homeless shelter to another.

“I can’t imagine how they function. I can’t imagine the stress,” said Seiling.

She said when families want to check on their status, there is really only one thing she can tell them: “We have to just keep waiting,” she said.

U.S. airports are now seeing furlough days because of the sequester. But some social service agencies felt the pinch weeks ago.

Over the next few days WBEZ will bring you portraits of how poor and working class people, and the agencies that serve them, are being impacted by the government spending cuts.

Penny pinching at the Public Defender's office

When I first reached Jonathan Hawley, he was driving around trying to find a backup battery because his office’s old one died. Picking up computer batteries is not normally part of the job for the Chief Federal Public Defender for the Central district Illinois. But because of the sequester, Hawley had to layoff three people, including his computer specialist.

Another problem: The computer battery cost $500.

“We have nothing budgeted for unexpected expenses,” said Hawley.  “So whether it be a computer breaking down, a chair breaking. Any penny we spend that we cannot currently predict, has to come out of the pay of the employees here.”
Eventually Hawley found an extra battery at another office.

He said for now, his public defenders office is actually lucky. They have 10 planned furlough days compared to some other public defenders offices, that have as much as 30. But he said if an expensive case came in the door, where had to pay for an expert or cover travel, his office could easily end up in the same situation.

“Which is sort of self defeating,” said Hawley. “You get a case that needs extraordinary resources, the only way to do that is to reduce your staff, which is one of your key resources.”

Hawley said when a public defender takes furlough days the entire court system slows down. He also said the U.S. Attorney’s office, the people who he goes up against in court every day, don’t have any furlough days scheduled.

“If you are talking about a level playing field, it doesn’t sound very level,” said Hawley.

Without a capable public defenders office, Hawley said the court will be forced to pass the cases to court assigned private attorneys, which he said could cost taxpayers more in the long run. 

Cuts to Senior Services

Casandra Schmoll is the executive director of the Henry County Senior Center in Western Illinois, near the Iowa border.

When she first got the news that the sequester meant she’d have to cut 9 percent of her budget she sat down with a big spreadsheet and tried to figure out what cut would be the least painful.

“They told me to go from the least important person to the most important person,” she said.

In terms of day to day services, she decided she was the least important.  She gave herself furlough days. But that wasn’t enough.

Her employees make minimum wage, living paycheck to paycheck. Cuts in hours would be hard for them. Not to mention the seniors who depend on them everyday.

“It was the toughest  decision I have ever made in my entire life,” Schmoll said.

In the end, she decided to cut back their senior transportation services. Before the sequester transportation services ended at 3 p.m., now they end at 1 p.m. That means fewer seniors getting rides to doctor appointments and grocery stores.

They’ve also cut back on Friday meal delivery. In two of the towns they serve, the senior center will skip delivering meals every other Friday.

“Some people, that’s the only hot meal they’ll get till Monday again,” she said.  

As difficult as the cuts have been, Schmoll says it’s given her a chance to see some real kindness. Neighbors help deliver meals and some drivers transport seniors beyond the time they’re being paid.

But what has touched Schmoll the most is the older women who have been donating an extra dollar, despite their own tough financial situation, for the meals they eat.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h and share signs of the sequester in your community.