State lawmakers need to put more money into programs and services for struggling communities like Austin, said residents at U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’ recent town hall meeting.

Community organizations and social service nonprofits are struggling to keep their doors open because of budget cuts from Springfield, said many of the 70 people in attendance at a forum held at Austin Town Hall earlier this month.

Davis was joined by Cook County Commissioner Richard BoykinAld. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and state Rep. Camille Lilly. They heard from many residents, some running nonprofits and others currently or previously working for the city. Other residents took issue with how the state and federal government provide services to residents.

Emory Holmes said his agency, Lincoln Challenge Academy, which provides job and life-skill training for at-risk youth, is seeing fewer young people than ever before. Funding from the state has been “abysmal,” Holmes said.

His classes usually have upwards of 250 youth. For his upcoming class in January, only 25 have enrolled so far. Holmes, who’s worked at the agency for 17 years, said he’s tried to reach out to CPS for a possible partnership but has received no response.

“I need an inroad to the mayor because there are some kids falling through the cracks. I need help to reach the kids I can’t reach. It’s very frustrating,” Holmes said of his 22-week program for 16- to 18-year-olds in need of help.

Rep. Lilly said Holmes’ agency has support from both Republicans and Democrats and is the kind of program that deserves money.

“It’s not going away, it just needs to be funded,” Lilly said. “Representatives on both sides of the aisle understand the importance of this program. We have to continue to find the revenue to support this program that’s impacting so many children and youth.”

Davis said Lincoln Challenge Academy is one of the most successful prevention programs out there for youth.

Iesha Oliver-Holmes, who works with youth at Austin Town Hall, said the building, a haven for many kids, has been neglected by the city. Parts of the building are crumbling, and there aren’t enough basketballs for kids to use, Oliver-Holmes said.

“Why don’t we have the same kind of resource you see in other communities, like Scoville Park in Oak Park? The youth come in here, and we can’t give them what they need. I’m probably sticking my neck out in saying this, but it needs to be said,” Oliver-Holmes said.

Some retirees attending last week’s town hall spoke about problems they’re having with their Social Security.

William Rhodes, 77, said he was told recently by the Social Security Administration that his wife won’t be able to receive his Social Security check when he dies, as is normally the case. He said he was told that because his wife, who’s also retired, worked for the city and draws a pension, she won’t get his check.

“That’s not right. I worked all my life, and now you’re telling me my family can’t get my money. That’s my money,” Rhodes said.

The law, however, says that a spouse who’s receiving a pension after working in the public sector cannot also collect Social Security benefits of a deceased spouse, explained Michael Sokolik, a regional public affairs specialist for the Social Security Administration who attended the town hall.

Davis said he supports the law.

“I can empathize with him. Of course, you’d like to get a little more. But you have to take an option, not both. It’s one or the other,” Davis said.

An assistant principal at an Austin school spoke about the lack of resources at her school. Teachers are using their own money to pay for class materials, and assistant principals have to fill in for teachers in class because of limited funding.

Ald. Taliaferro said CPS has been mismanaged under both mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard Daley. One solution, he noted, is having an elected school board, which Taliaferro said he supports. The community, he added, also supports it, having voted overwhelming for an advisory referendum in the February election calling for an elected school board.

Congressman Davis said he’s long supported having an elected school board. He also urged more residents to get involved in demanding change to the schools.

Davis cited the recent student protests against racist practices at the University of Missouri as an example of citizens changing the system. The university’s president and chancellor both resigned last week after the mostly black football team refused to play; a black student also went on a hunger strike in protest.

“It’s going to take more than just the elected officials,” Davis said. “What we need is more engagement and more action on the part of the citizens. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.” 

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