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Chicago Is Devoting $25 Million To Domestic Violence Prevention. Organizers Say City, State Need To Do More To Support Workers

“Health care workers need to be paid more, mental workers need to be paid more, and the same is true for our essential health workers,” a domestic violence organization leader said. “Our staff show up every day.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks on at a City Council meeting on Jan. 26, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Family Rescue Inc. in Calumet Heights helps about 2,000 families experiencing domestic violence every year, including through its 36-bed shelter.

With intimate partner violence surging during the pandemic, the need for services is only getting bigger, Executive Director Joyce Coffee said. Client service hours and calls to the organization’s crisis line have increased. The strains on her staff and programs are getting more severe as they help more survivors.

But city and state funding for that work is badly lacking, Coffee said.

“One of the things that is critical that I think people often forget is that the day-to-day bread and butter foundational services — the accessibility, the 24/7 presence that has to be there — has not been funded to the degree that is necessary,” Coffee said. “It’s not just about adding additional services where you’re having gaps. It’s being willing to fund the bread-and-butter foundational services that are here, and that hasn’t actually happened as much.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced last month the city is devoting $25 million to programs that help domestic violence survivors, earmarking $5 million for emergency financial assistance. The city’s plan involves building 100 more rehousing units, boosting funding for legal services and establishing a program to support young people who have experienced or witnessed violence in the home.

RELATED: City Unveils Plan To Combat Sex Trafficking And Partner Violence — But Will It Be Enough To Stop More Black Women From Going Missing?

Overall, the 2022 city budget allocates $35 million to address gender-based violence, a significant increase from the $2.5 million in 2021, city officials said.

Any money dedicated to helping survivors get proper assistance is a win, organizers said. But city and state leaders need to consistently invest in existing programs, which would help organizations adequately pay qualified employees and revamp facilities, experts said.

Employees are burnt out and families are on waiting lists for the services they need, organizers said.

“We believe that the city has made a good investment with this initial $25 million in funding, but they have to invest more,” said Amanda Pyron, executive director at The Network Advocating Against Domestic Violence. “What the city’s funding does is it begins programs that were not funded at all, but what we really need is not just these new programs to start, but also an increase of programs that were already in place.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The intersection of 79th Street with Stony Island and South Chicago avenues in South Shore.

‘This Is Not The Time To Not Invest The Resources’

The Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline had a 16 percent increase in calls from 2019 to 2020, according to data provided by the city.

There were 56 percent more domestic violence shootings in 2021 compared to 2020, and 142 percent more than in 2019, data shows. There were 79 percent more domestic violence-related homicides than in 2019, data shows. 

While the mayor’s “significant commitment” to domestic violence prevention is wonderful, the stress for clients and staff “has been tremendous,” Coffee said. More money needs to flow to bolster services in place at organizations like Family Rescue, Coffee said. 

Rebecca Darr, executive director at WINGS Program, Inc., which provides housing and integrated services to end domestic violence, said the city’s plan for rapid-rehousing units legal fees is what people need to feel more secure and safe with their choice to escape domestic violence. People often don’t leave abusive relationships because they don’t have the financial resources to move forward, Darr said.

But existing services at the city’s shelters need similar attention and funding, Darr said. 

“All of us have seen more people coming in severely more traumatized,” Darr said. “There is a significantly higher number of incidents where guns were involved. And the children, in particular, are coming in extremely traumatized from what they witnessed. This is not the time to not invest the resources, and all of the domestic violence programs around the state are severely underresourced.” 

Alejandra Flores Rebollar, deputy press secretary at the Mayor’s Office, said Lightfoot “remains committed to addressing gender-based violence.”

“The city has tripled its investments with these dollars and stands ready to partner with federal, state and private sector partners that invest in meaningful ways,” Rebollar said.

While some agreed the city’s funding is a good start, state funding has been “incredibly disappointing,” Pyron said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Governor JB Pritzker looks on as officials gather for a press conference on the first day of inoculations at the United Center mass vaccination site in the Near West Side neighborhood on March 9, 2021.

Pritzker’s budget included a $2.275 million increase for violence prevention programs, a 12 percent increase from last year following “years of hollowing out by the prior administration,” a spokesperson said.

“… Gov. Pritzker has increased funding for domestic violence prevention providers [to] rebuild the critical wraparound services families rely on,” the spokesperson said. “The administration has had several productive conversations with the advocate community and looks forward to working with lawmakers to ensure these services receive the funding they need to keep families healthy and safe across Illinois.”

But that money won’t help state domestic violence shelters, Pyron said.

Organizers asked Pritzker to increase the Illinois Department of Human Services budget for domestic violence shelters to $50 million, nearly $28 million more than what’s been budgeted in 2022. The governor’s proposed budget only increases that funding by $400,000.

“When you look at the cost of living, increased gas prices for staff, staff wanting an increase in salaries every year because they’re deserving of it, we don’t have funding for that, and we were the only group of essential workers left out,” Pyron said.

Darr said gender-based violence is a statewide issue. The steps Lightfoot has taken to address the issue need to be reflected throughout Illinois, as well, Darr said. 

“There are a lot of places statewide that are hurting,” Darr said. “In the budget address, there were significant increases for more mental health and community violence prevention. That should absolutely be there. But why domestic violence was left off the list is surprising. It’s great that the city is doing it, but for the state, it doesn’t make any sense why they wouldn’t make an investment in this.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Sunlight streaks through the cloudy skies over the 43rd Street CTA Green Line stop in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood on March 31, 2021.

‘Revolving Door’ Of Workers

Beyond the programs to support survivors, the city and state must direct more funding to better pay the people running those services, experts said.

The Network Advocating Against Domestic Violence also operates the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline in partnership with the city, Pyron said. In 2021, employees worked more than 2,400 hours of overtime on the hotline, Pyron said. Workers are exhausted, she said.

“We have advocates and counselors and therapists and shelter directors who’ve been working nonstop since March of 2020 to take services to a remote platform, to help victims and survivors in hotels when shelters were not safe during the pandemic,” Pyron said. “They’re burnt out.  We’re dealing with high levels of burnout and staffing turnover.” 

Many of the advocates at the Network Advocating Against Domestic Violence are survivors themselves, Pyron said.

“These workers have proved their worth, they proved the necessity of their work, and so it’s time for them to be compensated and kind of brought up to a living wage, if not even a thriving wage, in the state,” Pyron said. 

Darr said the WINGS Program’s suburban location has been a “revolving door” for employees. Finding, hiring and keeping employees is a national problem across industries, Darr said. But the taxing work expected at domestic violence prevention programs paired with little pay pushes people out of the door, Darr said.

“It’s hard to keep staff when you don’t have the money to pay people more than $14 to $15 an hour to do difficult, intense work, and they could go to McDonald’s and make $20,” Darr said. “The people who do stay are getting burnt out, and if they have options to make more money, they’re going to leave. You can’t blame them.” 

Health care workers, which includes employees at domestic violence prevention shelters, need to be paid more, Darr said. That starts with proper funding from the governor and mayor, she said.

“Health care workers need to be paid more, mental workers need to be paid more, and the same is true for our essential health workers,” Darr said. “Our staff show up every day.”

Rebollar said the city will roll out “competitive” requests for proposals for gender-based violence services from March to June. The requests will support organizations as they “build capacity to serve vulnerable populations,” Rebollar said. That includes staffing and salaries.

“As private, public and nonprofit industries continue to face staffing shortages during what has been called the great migration, [the Department of Family and Support Services] has been working directly with workforce development partners to close those staffing gaps for our nonprofit partners,” Rebollar said.

The city is making great strides, but organizers will always keep pushing for more until they have what they need, Pyron said.

“It’s a good news story, but there’s more work ahead,” Pyron said. “This funding isn’t going to solve the entire problem by any means. This is the first step.” 

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