Hike service

Chicago social service agencies expand offerings as COVID makes needs greater

The therapy is an example of how the pantry in recent years has made mental health services a key part of its offerings. It’s part of a trend — accelerated by the needs exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19 — where social service agencies across town and across the country are reaching beyond their traditional specialties to try to provide whatever their clients might need. need.

“People are already congregating here,” said Lakeview Pantry program manager Jennie Hull, who is also a licensed therapist. “They’re like, ‘So, okay, well, now that I’m here, can I get housing help? Could I get help for some mental health issues?'”

The need for these so-called wrap-around services and some timely grants from the Chicago Department of Public Health helped Lakeview significantly strengthen its counseling services. Now, with five full-time therapists on staff, plus interns, the agency has grown from around 350 client visits over an eight-month period in 2019, Hull said, to 2,500 planned over the same period this year. That compares to about 60,000 food visits, she said.

“I think everyone should have a therapist or someone to talk to,” Rameriz said. “And the fact that it costs me nothing is awesome.”

For Ramirez, this part was essential. When she was in therapy on her “good” private insurance, the co-pay was $80-$100 per session, meaning she could only afford to go once or twice a month, she said.

At the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the number of sessions is also unlimited, which is not the case with private insurance.

It’s a model that makes sense, says Amy Laboy, vice president of programs and community partnerships for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the food bank that works with a network of some 700 pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and others throughout the region.

That’s because the links between hunger and poor mental health are explicit. A 2020 university study found that food insecurity is associated with more than 250% higher risks of anxiety and depression – far greater, according to low-income people surveyed, than the impact of loss of life. ‘a job.

“So the issues are exacerbated as a result of the pandemic, and our responses become more robust as a result,” Laboy said. National hunger relief organization Feeding America estimates that 613,000 people in Cook County will experience food insecurity in 2021, up from 481,000 before the pandemic.

Two other social service agencies, Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Englewood and New Life Centers, serving Chicago’s predominantly Latino communities, did the exact opposite: they added or strengthened food distribution alongside the services that they were already supplying.

Since last June, IMAN has partnered with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to add food pantry to its menu of medical, mental health, employment and other services, said Shannon McCray, behavioral health manager at the organization. The idea was to offer food – the most basic of needs – but also to make people aware of what else IMAN does.

And almost immediately, the new program demonstrated its worth, she said.

A homeless woman walking past the IMAN facility was yelling at her 10-year-old son. A therapist overheard, asked the pantry to contact them and bring her two bags of food. “She became a patient, the therapist started seeing her and her son weekly, and things are going much better with them,” McCray said.

At New Life Centers, the food program exploded. Before the pandemic, the organization distributed food to about 100 families a week, mostly with “saved” food from South Loop Trader Joe’s, said Matt DeMateo, the organization’s executive director. It partnered with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and as of June 2020, “we were feeding about 6,000 families a week,” DeMateo said.

“We all need food,” he said. “Our neighborhood needs it. So we keep doing it. But it’s not our sweet spot. If a family walked through our doors, they’d get 90 pounds worth of groceries every week, no questions asked. But then, mom could go to aerobics, kids could go to our shelters, our online learning support centers, after school they would find a mentor, they could put their kids in sports awareness activities. . “

Growth in food reflected growth in services provided by New Life. “We’ve grown at every level,” DeMateo said, growing from 30 employees to 80, for example.

Back at Lakeview Pantry, the mental health expansion wasn’t an easy sell at first, the Hull programs director said.

Some board members felt the organization should focus on basic needs, such as housing and food. “That’s what you need before you can really move forward,” Hull said. “But it made sense to them after a while. Of course it makes sense that we go to therapy. People are already there.”