Group pushing to open a mental health center in Austin

March 15, 2017
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While many of the Austin residents at a recent meeting about mental health in the community agreed there’s a need for expanded services, not everyone was on board with the organization that is trying to build a new clinic.

The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, in partnership with former Gov. Pat Quinn and Loretto Hospital, held a community meeting Monday about the potential of building a mental health clinic in Austin.

Michael Snedeker, executive director of the coalition, said it was an informational meeting to allow residents to decide if they want to get involved. The coalition builds mental health centers in Chicago neighborhoods, funding the projects through small property tax increases residents approve through a local election referendum.

Quinn, who said he was excited to see the initiative starting in Austin, told residents the “West Side is the best side.” As governor, Quinn signed legislation in 2014 that made community governing bodies appointed to run the mental health center legally able to levy property tax increases with some limitations.

Quinn said he supported the coalition’s effort to build a new center and referenced the need for more services.

“Here in Austin, we’ve had some challenges, there’s no doubt about that . . . Violence can cause trauma,” Quinn said. “Great changes in America, they don’t come from the top down. They bubble up from the grassroots.”

Quinn and Snedeker both stressed that community members would make up the governing body for the new clinic, and would make decisions about finances and the types of services provided.

Some residents, however, were not convinced.

Milton Johnson, director of community relations for Bobby E. Wright CMHC Inc., a mental health facility in East Garfield Park, said the name of the coalition was misleading, making residents think funding might go to existing centers, like Bobby Wright.

Later in an interview, Johnson said he worries the coalition sees an opportunity to make money, not serve the community.

“There’s a big market for mental health. It’s been there forever,” Johnson said. “Now there’s an opportunity to make money there, just like there’s an opportunity to make money with those going to prison.”

During the meeting, Snedeker said at least 85 percent of funds must go to providing services. He said a center on Chicago’s North Side, which opened in 2015 after residents passed a referendum, is directly even more, nearly 93 percent.

Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele said residents needs more details about where the money would come from to build a clinic, how the funds would be spent and how a governing body would be chosen before they can support the initiative.

One resident told Snedeker during the meeting the African-American community should get mental health services for free because of lingering problems with injustice; they should not be responsible for paying more in property taxes.

The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, founded in 1991, successfully opened the center in North River, at 4141 N. Kedzie Ave., and residents of East Garfield Park are planning to build their own center after approving a referendum in 2016.

The most a home’s property tax will increase is $24 a year, based on an annual property tax bill of $6,000. Most homes would see an increase of $16 per year, with the smallest increase totaling $8.

Congressman Danny Davis said he was open to exploring building a new center and recognized the need for more mental health services. He also said he hoped the referendum would be on the next ballot.

Still, Johnson said he and others he spoke to during the meeting are not sure this is the way to help Austin.

“I didn’t get the feeling that people were interested,” Johnson said.

When he first began working at Bobby Wright, many in the African-American community considered mental illness a taboo subject, he said.

“People are just beginning to identify with feelings that they don’t know what those feelings are . . . [When I started at Bobby Wright], there were people in that room who used to look at me like I was crazy.”

Johnson said he would prefer to see existing clinics get more funding, and no matter which services are offered, they need to be sensitive to the cultural context for people in the community.

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