State budget battle forces life-saving programs to cut back

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Day number 342 and the budget debacle in Springfield slogs along as many state-funded programs remain on life support. This as some have already had the plug pulled.

Kids, former prisoners, young people desperately in need of jobs are the people left "without" for yet another summer, when violence heats up and trouble on the streets is a matter of life and death.

On Chicago's West Side, when the sun goes down the neighborhood kids need a place to go. To stay safe. So area teens have been calling the West Side Health Authority Youth Center their home away from home for several years now.

"It's basically my second home because when I got nowhere else to go, I just come here,” said 15-year-old Tyreese Tate. "My biggest fear is losing my life to the streets.”

Here's the heartbreak: this colorful building is filled with programs for kids ages 11-17. Many of them are shut down until Springfield ponies up state money to help pay for them. Programs like Teen Reach that used to host camps for Tyreese and others.

The state funds about 25% of the programs at the Westside Health Authority. Because those funds are dry, the people that run the center are relying on city programs more than ever.

These programs provide a chance for these kids to leave a rough, urban environment, at least for a few days, to discover nature, friends and find new meaning in life each summer. Tyreese has loved and looked forward to them. This summer, those trips have been cancelled again.

"Our most vulnerable population is that 13-15 year old group and teen reach is some of the only funding available to that group and now it is gone," said Quiwanna bell, COO of Westside Health Authority. "We really feel as though if we don't get 'em now, before they graduate high school, we may have lost 'em forever," she said.

Quiwana Bell isn't the only one who says summer jobs, or jobs in general, are directly correlated to the rise in violence on the streets. A recent study says 47% of young black men in Chicago are out of work and out of school. And in Austin, with roughly 100,000 residents, the employment rate sits at a staggering 55%.

The Illinois General Assembly approved a $700 million spending plan, of which, $19 million could help with summer jobs. But it currently sits on the governor's desk.

Another program barely staying afloat: Community Support Advisory Council (CSAC). Ex-offenders like James Smith come to the West Side Health Authority as he and others face re-entry into society needing a job, clothes, housing and so much more. After 19 years behind bars, Smith is enrolled in substance abuse and anger management programs that are life-saving for him.

"It's giving me confirmation and building my self-confidence and self-worth,” Smith said. “It lets me know that everybody makes mistakes and just because you made a mistake doesn't mean it's the end of the world, it means you got an opportunity to get it right this time around. And that's you can, but you have to apply yourself,” he said.

The State of Illinois owes the center over $200,000 for this program alone. It hasn't seen a cent in nine months, maybe more.

While these programs don't save people, the center claims they do build up the human inside. They’re sometimes lost in the streets and in need of some guidance or help until they are back on their feet again.

All of it fuels Quiwana Bell to stay in the game despite the stalemate in Springfield. She refuses to give up on Austin.

"This is a young community, a beautiful community, a vibrant community. Our young people deserve better,” Bell said.

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