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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

The City Closed Many Of Its Free Mental Health Clinics, So West Siders Opened Their Own

"A lot of people said we couldn't get it done on the West Side. And some great people proved them wrong," Rev. Larry Dowling said.

Ribbon cutting ceremony at the grand opening of the Encompassing Center.
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GARFIELD PARK — Aiming to fill part of a massive void after the city closed half of its mental health clinics in 2012, West Siders have opened a new clinic to bring free mental health services to residents in need.

The Encompassing Center, 3019 W. Harrison St. recently opened and is focused on serving Garfield Park, North Lawndale and the Near West Side residents. It offers a wide scope of services managed by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, including individual counseling and group counseling, with a special focus on trauma and substance abuse.

The center expects to serve at least 400 clients in its first year alone.

Any resident from the surrounding area can receive services for free by dropping in at the Encompassing Center or by calling 773-638-5703. Clients can also be referred by neighborhood groups, churches and schools involved in the center’s outreach.

The journey to open the center was a hard-fought, years-long process by the community to identify gaps in mental health services, acquiring funding and ultimately win public support to fund the center.

The efforts was coordinated by the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, which was formed in 1991 as a response to the push started then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and continued under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close many of the city-run mental health clinics. Chicago once had 19 mental health clinics, but after a string of closures, residents were left with just five city-run mental health centers.

Most recently, in 2012, Emanuel shuttered half of the city’s 12 clinics to bridge a $369 million budget gap. The move sparked outrage that the city was not prioritizing mental health disparities in disinvested communities, and mental health advocates said the closures left hundreds of patients who utilized the centers high and dry.

The coalition began working to get a clinic opened on the West Side after successfully opening the Kedzie Center mental health clinic, 4141 N. Kedzie Ave., in 2014. To open their first center, the coalition led the way for the Community Expanded Mental Health Services Act to be passed by the state, which allows communities in Chicago to band together to create their own self-funded mental health programs through a localized property tax levy.

They then began working with local leaders, churches and community groups to gauge whether West Siders wanted a mental health center of their own.

In 2016, the coalition and their local partners set out to get 2,800 petition signatures that would allow them to put a binding referendum on the local ballot so that residents could vote to open a mental health program in the area.

By the end of the summer, they had gathered more than 10,260 signatures, thousands more than were needed to get the question on the ballot.

When the referendum hit ballots, West Side voters overwhelmingly voted to fund the center, with nearly 87 percent voting for the tax hike.

The property tax dollars collected in 2018 as a result of the levy, $938,000, became the budget to open the Encompassing Center — which included leasing a building and hiring a staff of six therapists.

“It is clearly just the work of the community. A lot of people said we couldn’t get it done on the West Side. And some great people proved them wrong,” said Rev. Larry Dowling of Saint Agatha’s Parish in North Lawndale, one of the community partners the coalition tapped to make the mental health center a reality.

Credit: Pascal Sabino/ Block Club Chicago
Rev. Larry Dowling leads Saint Agatha’s Parish in North Lawndale.

Despite a longstanding stigma around mental health, neighbors were vocal about the need for more resources to manage trauma, Dowling said.

Parishioners at Saint Agatha’s and students, parents, teachers and residents in the area pitched in to knock on doors to raise awareness about mental health needs and get signatures for the referendum. Dowling said the volunteers worked to open up those types of conversations all over the West Side — from barbershops to laundromats to grocery stores.

“The beauty of it too, for me, is that it was all grassroots,” Dowling said. “There were no conversations with any politicians throughout the course of this until actually getting it on the ballot.”

Neighbor Jackie Ingram said residents connected with the idea for the new center because it would be a way for the community to take control of the resources that are directed to the West Side by the city.

“We live in the community, so when we talk to the people, we’re not talking to strangers. We’re talking to people that we actually know and see every day,” Ingram said. “So it was a labor of love when you tell them: ‘You have an opportunity to say what you want to do with this tax money.'”

To figure out which types of resources would be most beneficial to West Siders, the leaders behind the center completed a comprehensive community mental health needs assessment. The assessment found that the West Side’s most critical mental health issues are depression, substance abuse, and trauma, all issues that are exacerbated by stressors like crime and financial difficulties.

The process of involving neighbors in the development of the mental health services coming to their area makes the center a powerful tool for supplementing other mental health offerings in the area, including those run by nearby Saint Anthony Hospital, I AM ABLE and the city-run Lawndale Mental Health Clinic, organizers said.

“The good thing about this center is that none of the politicians can close it down,” Ingram said, since the Encompassing Center is not contingent on the city’s budget. “We are a community funded program. We did it by knocking on doors and talking to people.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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