Residents who spoke during the Aug. 11 West Side 2022 Budget Engagement forum said they want more investment in their communities, more support for families affected by gun violence, public art and grocery stores. 

The forum, which was held at Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Jackson Blvd., is one of the three community forums held throughout the city to get a better sense of residents’ budget priorities. Heads of several city departments gave presentations about current and future priorities. 

Residents were able to discuss their priorities in groups and give comments toward the end of the meeting.

The forum happened on the day the mayor announced that the city was facing a $733 million deficit. The city, however, got $1.8 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the third federal stimulus package, which Chicago must spend by Dec. 31, 2024. 

The city plans to cover the deficit through the combination of ARPA funds, refinancing the existing debt and “government efficiencies.” The city council is expected to review the budget in October and vote on whether to approve it in November. 

This year, the city organized three virtual stakeholder meetings, six community roundtables and three public budget forums in order to gather ideas before releasing the budget draft in September. During the Aug. 11 meeting, the city officials focused on mental health, violence reduction, housing assistance, family services and youth employment. 

Tatyana Lane, of Austin, said that the city hasn’t done enough to provide funding for Black therapists who, like her, work in Black communities. 

“My major concern is not just the mental health service in the inner city, but more so the culturally appropriate mental health professionals being valued in the city,” she said.

While Lightfoot didn’t address Lane’s comments about therapists in Black communities specifically, she said she supported investing more in mental health, particularly given the trauma caused by the pandemic. 

“We tripled the budget for mental health services in my time as mayor, and, just this year, we saw 500% increase in patients we were able to service with mental health organizations,” she said.

Lightfoot added that the city is gearing up for a campaign to tackle the stigma against mental health services and a “toolkit” to help residents address mental heath issues.

“It’s not enough to have a slogan,” the mayor said. “We need to provide tangible ways in which people [can] get help and can give help.” 

Keshawna Miller, of Austin, who said she served as a campaign manager for William “Dock” Walls’ 2015 mayoral campaign, said that Chicago would benefit from a different narrative. She said supporting artists in Austin will also benefit “businesses owned by Black and Brown persons.”

Lightfoot responded that she agreed, which is why the 2022 budget will have a line item in the general fund that would support the community arts. She noted that the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which has funded such projects in recent years, gets a significant portion of its revenue from the hotel occupancy tax. 

Lightfoot said she wants a funding source that would be less vulnerable to shifts in economic and social conditions.

“Reclaiming that narrative is critically important, not just for the outside world, which is important, too, but reclaiming it for ourselves,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot also said that she made public art part of major development projects through the Invest South/West initiative. 

Maria Pike, who became an anti-violence activist after her son, Ricky Pike, was shot dead in 2012, urged the city to provide more support for families affected by gun violence beyond grief counseling. 

“The family unit, if it’s already dysfunctional, disintegrates [after the gun violence incident],” she said. “Their ability to earn a living goes down, and they lose jobs. Some of them become homeless. Uplift their lives. Give them a chance. Provide them the tools so they can elevate their lives.”

Liz Abunaw, founder of Austin’s 40 Acres Fresh Market, urged the city to invest in grocery store start-ups and organize more farmers’ markets, “so we can incubate a food system in our community, so the only thing we get isn’t [just] food pantries.” 

“This is a huge, significant issue,” Lightfoot said. “There should be no food deserts in Chicago. People should be able to walk to a grocery store and have access to good-quality, affordable foods.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...