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Chicago 'Vital Signs' Report Tells Where Life Support is Needed

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Like a strong, steady heartbeat, the Chicago Community Trust quietly tapped out the city's economic pulse Monday in the form of its very first monthly "Vital Signs" report.

Now available at the Chicago Community Trust's website, Vital Signs is designed to serve as the source for Chicago food pantry and food stamp usage, home foreclosure and homeless shelter inquiry stats, unemployment rates and mass layoff claims -- all the most powerful indicators needed to assess how our fair city is doing.

"Because of the nature of the organizations who report to us, and local data we can access, we can compile the data and present a more detailed picture about the growing impact of the economic downturn," Trust president and chief executive officer Terry Mazany told me Monday.

"This is a bridge between the national numbers and the anecdotes of someone who just lost their home, because numbers and anecdotes alone don't tell the whole story, or how that compares to last month or last year."

In designing Vital Signs as a sort of community dashboard, the Trust -- a foundation that makes grants to organizations working to improve metropolitan Chicago -- is aiming to provide specific and easy-to-read statistics that can be tracked and compared to each other over time.

A sampling of the first report's sobering stats:

-- from September 2007 to September 2008 the unemployment rate increased from 4.9% to 6.6% in metropolitan Chicago

-- foreclosure filings doubled from 7,814 in the third quarter of 2007 to 14,868 for the same period in 2008 in metropolitan Chicago

-- community agencies saw the number of individuals using food pantries increase by 32% in one year in Cook County

-- almost 6,000 calls for homelessness prevention assistance were received in the month of September 2008 versus 4,700 in September 2007 in Chicago.

Future reports will be slated for the third Monday of each month -- when the latest numbers from the preceding month are compiled.

"We really want this information readily accessible all in one place to help corporations, city and organization leaders, and others, to help with making policy decisions," Terry said. "We also want the donor community and philanthropic foundations to have this information available to give them insight -- they need to know where the pressing needs are."

Of course, this is just a starting point; it's possible to use the data as a bit of a crystal ball to forecast important trends.

"To me, the most interesting data fact to come out this month is that food pantry usage is going up but food stamp usage is dipping," Terry said. "It's just a hypothesis but it may be that even though more people may be eligible, government cutbacks have made it so those people are not being identified and processed. That could be something to study."

In conjunction with their new report -- a bit of a downer, really -- the Trust had good news to share, as well: their "Unity Challenge," a $3 million initiative to expand capacity of not-for-profit agencies meeting basic human needs like food and shelter.

"The demand has gone way up, especially for agencies that provide health and human services," Terry said. "Organizations have come to think of us as the community savings account and, having been around 93 years, in times like this we can redirect our standard budget to meet the needs."

"These times are troubling. For instance, the doubling of the home foreclosures will create a ripple effect with a lag time from the first moment of unemployment to when those last savings run out," Terry said. "As more families are out of homes and they burn through whatever they had, you'll see more people go through the safety net."

So another way to look at Vital Signs is as a count-your-blessings-meter. And maybe also as a clarion call for personal action.

"Chicagoans have a history of giving back," Terry said. "This information might let people realize 'no matter what hardship I have, I can still help others'. As difficult as an individual's life experience is now, more than likely there are others who are worse off."

Esther J. Cepeda writes about social justice issues on www.600words.com