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Thursday, Aug 16, 2012, 2:12 pm

Chicago: Occupiers of Mental Health Clinics Face Trial

By Kari Lydersen

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CHICAGO--On Tuesday, N’Dana Carter and others arrested for occupying the now-shuttered public mental health clinic in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood headed to court on charges of criminal trespassing. The bench trial was postponed until October. Meanwhile, Carter’s rage at clinic closings--and what they say about the city’s priorities--continues to grow.

Six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics were closed this year and scores of union staff laid off, including disproportionately high numbers of Black and Latino workers.

Carter and others say the impacts on low-income, minority South and West Side neighborhoods have been severe.

“The city of Chicago made a hit on the African American community when they decided to fire every African-American male therapist," Carter tells In These Times. "Who is the first to be arrested in the city of Chicago? African-American males. And upon release from prison, there’s often a requirement to seek mental health therapy. Therapy is successful because you develop a healthy relationship with your therapist. These are people who have been displaced, disrespected, locked up for some years; do you really think they’ll be able to relate to white women, white men?”

As part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s inaugural 2012 budget, the clinics were closed to save a reported $3 million. Just before Christmas last year, The Chicago Reporter revealed the details: planned layoffs of 208 workers in the city Department of Public Health, due to both the menta-health clinic closures and the privatization of public primary care health clinics.

Carter told In These Times, "Some of the people laid off had been on the job 20 or 25 years. They had substantial relationships with their patients. People could call their therapists at any hour. Therapists that would buy food out of their own pocket for their clients. It wasn’t a casual relationship, they were loving intense relationships. Now [many of the patients] won’t even come outside, they won’t talk, it’s painful to see. We’re looking at people who are literally falling apart while the city is saying, ‘That’s your problem–you shouldn’t be sick, you shouldn’t be mentally ill.’”

(Read AFSCME’s reports on the impact of the closures here.)

The clinic cuts are among the most high-profile public service cuts and privatizations being undertaken by the Emanuel administration in order to address the city’s gaping budget hole. But grassroots groups point out that while cutting public services, the city continues its tradition of doling out millions in taxpayer dollars to wealthy corporations under the tax increment financing (TIF) program.

TIFs are meant to stimulate “blighted” neighborhoods by setting aside a portion of property tax dollars to subsidize local business growth. But for years, critics have charged the federal program is grossly misused in Chicago, with subsidies going to major corporations in already-thriving and upscale areas that could hardly qualify as “blighted.” Last week In These Times reported on Chicago union members protesting TIF dollars given to United Airlines and Coors/Miller Lite in the downtown “LaSalle Central” district.

The city is also spending a total of $20 million in TIF dollars for commercial redevelopment around the University of Chicago, not far from the now-shuttered Woodlawn mental health clinic that members of the Mental Health Movement occupied in April. Clinic patients and their supporters can’t help but notice that just a fraction of this TIF subsidy could theoretically keep all six mental health clinics open. Meanwhile, residents of the adjacent low-income, largely African American neighborhoods such as Woodlawn say that they are being pushed out by the university’s development policies.

It is unclear whether TIF money could legally be diverted to public services like clinics. But critics suggest simply cancelling inappropriate TIFs so the property tax dollars can be used as usual for public resources.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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