03/09/2012 10:19 am ET Updated May 09, 2012

With Mental Health Clinic Closures Imminent, Protesters Take To The Streets

Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno definitely did not expect to see his office packed full of sign-waving protestors on his ward night. Some 45 public health employees, consumers, AFSCME union workers and activists marched from Northwest Medical Center in Logan Square to get his signature on a resolution sponsored by Alderman Willie Cochran to hold an emergency city council session that would reconsider drastic cutbacks of the city's mental health facilities. They were not alone.

Tuesday, March 6, at 4:30 pm, Chicagoans across the city took to the streets to rally against the proposed closures of six of the city's twelve mental health clinics over the next month and a half, as well as bids to privatize of all seven of our Neighborhood Health Centers. Services such as counseling, physical therapy, and psychiatric evaluation will no longer be provided from these clinics to 5,000 people who are in need.

Some affected patients will have to travel up to 5.3 miles to receive care, crossing multiple bus lines, as well as gang boundaries. The majority of the clinics being closed are in historically underserved communities on the West Side and the South Side with large black and Latino populations. Two of the mental health clinics being closed are the only two bilingual clinics in the city -- the Back of the Yards and Northwest Medical Centers.

Northwest Medical Center has been serving the community for 40 years. "We have seen children, grandchildren, and now, as a matter of fact, great grandchildren," clinical therapist Rosemarie Torres told Moreno. For mental health consumers, the relationship with their therapist is critical -- sometimes it takes years, even decades to establish the level of trust needed for effective treatment. Yet, the city is trying to sever these relationships in a matter of weeks.

More than 150 public employees will lose their jobs as a result of these changes. "I can't say it enough, it's not really our jobs," says Timothy Hudson of Illinois Nurse's Association, "but it's the commitment to the service of the community." That sentiment was echoed by Anders Lindall, Public Affairs Director of ASCME, who has been hearing from laid-off and upset employees for months: "Their overriding concern is for their clients. Nobody gets into public services or mental health for the monetary rewards."

Public health nurses are some of the lowest paid employees in the medical field, yet laid-off workers such as Tim Hudson have been coming out on their own dime to show support. They are FEMA-trained emergency first responders, working in at-risk communities that use the most services -- and focusing on disease prevention and healthcare education. They provide the best care, at the lowest cost.

By privatizing mental healthcare and primary care clinics, Mayor Emanuel is making it harder for poor and handicapped people to pay for care. The mayor has pledged half a million dollars to private providers -- who will only see patients with insurance. In effect, these privatized centers will be paid twice -- once by the city, and once by public insurance.

Where will these mental health consumers end up if they can't get treatment? Just ask Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who said several weeks ago that Cook County Jail had become "the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois." Others may end up on the streets. According to Timothy Drake of Interfaith House, an interim housing program for the homeless in Garfield Park, Interfaith House has seen the number of residents with a reportable mental illness double in the past three months to 42% of their clientele, and they're at capacity -- where will others go?

All of these cuts are targeted to save a little more than 2.2 million dollars, out of the city's $6 billion dollar budget. There will be no budgetary savings this year, nor further down the line -- the people affected will just wind up receiving services elsewhere, whether that be a jail, a shelter, or an emergency room. The city will have to hire and train new staff, and will lose grants that some public aid nurses are attached to.

Governor Quinn has proposed to close two state mental health facilities, as well, Tinley Park and H. Douglas Singer in Rockford, to cut costs -- and while he has insisted that private hospitals and community care providers will take on those displaced, other hospitals have come out unwilling to take on further patients and our community care system has never been more understaffed and inadequately funded. According to Suzanne Andriukaitis, the Executive Director of NAMI Chicago, it costs $500 a day to keep someone in a hospital, $70 a day to keep them in jail, and just $25 a day to provide them care in the community.

Chicago used to have 20 outpatient clinics -- why are they cutting these services now? A quick fix to make the budget look good? Or is it because some mental health consumers are frequently too debilitated by their illness to vote?

Alderman Moreno was ultimately receptive to the protesters who arrived at his office last night. "If I can be part of the solution, I'd love to be part of the solution -- if we've got a plan, I'd love to be a part of that, too." This is a matter of priorities. By speaking out to our city officials, we can make mental health the city's priority.

You can be a part of the solution by contacting the mayor and your alderman. Tell them to prevent these poor decisions from becoming law -- and soon, because there isn't much time left. All six of the mental health clinics will be shuttered by the end of April. You can also show support by coming out to City Hall next Wednesday, March 14 at 9 am, to deliver the message to city government personally.

Here is a list of the facilities under threat:

Mental Health Clinics facing closure:
Auburn Gresham (1140 W. 79th st)
Back of the Yards (4313 S. Ashland)
Beverly/Morgan Park (1987 W. 111th st),
Rogers Park (1607 W. Howard St),
Northwest (2354 N. Milwaukee),
Woodlawn - 6337 S. Woodlawn

Neighborhood Health Centers scheduled to be privatized:
Englewood (641 W. 63rd St.)
Pilsen (1713 S. Ashland)
Roseland (200 E. 115th St.)
South Chicago (2938 E, 89th St.)
South Lawndale (3059 W. 26th St)
Uptown (845 W. Wilson)
West Town (2418 W. Division St.)

Check out photos from Tuesday's protests:

Mental Health Closure Protests