Expand Child Care and Reopen Mental Health Clinics — This Is How Chicago Progressives Want To Spend $1.8 Billion In COVID Relief

Protest at Chicago city hall over closed mental health clinics
In this file photo from November 2011, protesters with the Mental Health Movement stage a sit-in outside the office of then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel over his closing of half of the city's mental health clinics. Progressives in Chicago Tuesday proposed using federal stimulus money to reopen some clinics, among other causes. Spencer Green / Associated Press
Protest at Chicago city hall over closed mental health clinics
In this file photo from November 2011, protesters with the Mental Health Movement stage a sit-in outside the office of then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel over his closing of half of the city's mental health clinics. Progressives in Chicago Tuesday proposed using federal stimulus money to reopen some clinics, among other causes. Spencer Green / Associated Press

Expand Child Care and Reopen Mental Health Clinics — This Is How Chicago Progressives Want To Spend $1.8 Billion In COVID Relief

A coalition of progressive activists and aldermen Tuesday released their own plan for how Chicago should spend more than $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money.

Their plan would vastly expand child care, reopen public mental health clinics, create a guaranteed basic income for the city’s poorest residents, forgive debt from unpaid water bills and provide housing assistance for the homeless.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not yet released a breakdown of how she wants to allocate the money from the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress earlier this year. In a letter to aldermen Tuesday, the mayor’s budget director Susie Park said the administration plans to discuss how to spend the federal stimulus money in conjunction with the 2022 budget process.

Typically, the mayor releases a budget in October for approval in November, but Park’s letter said the mayor intends to release the 2022 budget proposal in September this year.

Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, the sponsor of the progressives’ spending plan, said the City Council needs to act more quickly than that.

“We’ve now had those dollars at least for a month,” La Spata said. “We can’t wait another five or six. We can’t say to our communities that are in crisis right now, give us a year. We can’t do that.”

Ten other progressive aldermen have signed onto the spending proposal, which is expected to be introduced to the full City Council on Wednesday. The proposed ordinance would give the most money — more than $500 million — to the city’s Department of Family and Support Services for child care, domestic violence prevention, and cash assistance for individuals who did not get federal stimulus checks.

More than $320 million would go to the Department of Housing, to provide additional rent relief, preserve affordable housing, create new permanent housing for the homeless, and convert hotels impacted by the pandemic into affordable housing.

Another nearly $300 million would go to the Department of Public Health, of which $100 million would go to reopening 10 mental health clinics staffed by public employees. Organizers and activists have been fighting to reopen the clinics since former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics.

“We want all of them open,” said Cheryl Miller, an organizer with Southside Together Organizing for Power. “Mayor Lightfoot promised to reopen (them) and said that she would reinvest a minimum of $25 million in rebuilding the public mental health infrastructure. We are now demanding that she honor that commitment.”

The progressives also want to create a $50 million program that provides a base level of income to the city’s poorest residents. The idea — known as “Universal Basic Income” or “Guaranteed Basic Income” — is not new. Former 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar proposed the idea in 2018, but nothing ever happened.

Now, the idea is becoming increasingly popular after the federal government issued multiple rounds of stimulus checks to the American people during the pandemic. Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, introduced an ordinance in April to create a “COVID-19 Guaranteed Income Program,” but it’s been stuck in Rules Committee, where legislation historically goes to die.

Under the progressives’ plan, most city departments, including the Mayor’s Office, would get some federal stimulus money. But they notably left out the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Fire Department, and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Several aldermen and community groups criticized Lightfoot for spending $281 million from the first round of federal stimulus on police. In all, Chicago got $1.2 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act last year.

The $1.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan must be spent by the end of 2024 and cannot go toward paying off debt.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.