The Night Ministry and partner organizations such as the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Illinois Association of Free and Charitable Clinics have been busy urging state lawmakers to back funding and legislation supporting Illinois residents experiencing homelessness and poverty. These efforts have paid off with Governor Pritzker signing a budget for this fiscal year that includes over $1 billion for housing assistance and homelessness programs and with legislators approving a slate of bills which promise relief for many individuals and families struggling with economic insecurity and homelessness.
Of the more than $1 billion for housing and homelessness services, $8.27 million is set aside for the Homeless Youth Programs funding line, including $1 million from the American Rescue Plan, while $33.1 million goes to the Illinois State Board of Education to support homeless students. Funding is also allocated for eviction mitigation and emergency rental and homeowner assistance to help prevent further households from losing their homes as the state recovers from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along with the increased funding, new legislation is likely to have a beneficial impact on the populations served by The Night Ministry. If the passed bills are signed by the governor, they will become laws affecting health care, housing, and financial aid for individuals experiencing poverty or homelessness across the state.
One measure will require hospitals to screen patients referred for non-emergency services by free and charitable clinics such as The Night Ministry for public benefits, like Medicaid, or help them apply for charity care, a form of free or discounted health care for low-income patients. When financial assistance is offered after medical procedures occur, patients are at risk of being sent to collections.
"If patients know that their medical bills will be covered by charity care in advance, then they're more likely to follow-through with the referrals provided by our medical staff at The Night Ministry and receive the needed medical care," shared Tedd Peso, Director of Strategic Partnerships.
Another notable health measure will permit the donation of unused, unopened prescription medicine to those who need it. Individuals experiencing homelessness or poverty are often unable to afford medication. By allowing safe donations through the creation of a Prescription Drug Repository Program overseen by the Illinois Department of Public Health, this measure increases access to prescription medications, which will positively impact clients' health outcomes.
A further bill will likely decrease opioid overdoses, a danger faced by many of the individuals served by The Night Ministry. The measure provides individuals who receive medical assistance for an overdose, and those that seek medical aid on their behalf, protection from possession charges when specific conditions are met. Such legislation removes legal concerns during this health emergency and could therefore save lives.
Additionally, thanks to legislators, more pregnant and parenting clients may be eligible for state support. This past session, lawmakers voted to remove restrictions preventing individuals with felony drug convictions from applying to and qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program which offers financial aid to pregnant women and families with children. TANF funds can be put towards food, housing, utilities, and basic needs. Services like GED training, childcare assistance, and referrals for mental health treatment are also offered. Because a criminal record is often a contributing factor in homelessness and housing instability, removing the restriction could potentially help many struggling families receive needed assistance..
The passed bills also include legislation assisting college students experiencing homelessness by giving them priority when applying for on-campus housing and creating a campus homeless liaison. They would also be eligible to remain in housing during breaks, if schools offer the same option to athletes and international students.
"That bill is great because it will really focus on making sure that students experiencing homelessness are seen on campus and have access to housing and other support, especially during breaks, so that homelessness and housing instability don't negatively impact their educational success," said Peso.