PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday August 5th, 2016, 2:11pm

Chicago's West Siders Seek Ballot Referendum For Community-Funded Mental Health Center

Chicagoans who are organizing a ballot initiative to create a community-funded mental health center on the West Side submitted double the required petition signatures to the election board Friday. 

Chicagoans from the city's West Side are a step closer to creating a resident-funded mental health center in their community.

The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers delivered over 10,000 petition signatures Friday to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners for a local ballot initiative to establish a West Side Expanded Mental Health Services Program (EMHSP).

Under state law, Chicago residents can gather signatures for a binding ballot referendum asking voters in their community to approve a small property tax hike for the creation of an EMHSP.

The mental health coalition gathered over double the required signatures to place the question on the November 8 ballot in the proposed West Side EMHSP service area, which includes East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, West Garfield Park and the Near West Side.

"The voters in my community will have the opportunity to vote 'yes' and decide if they want to expand and restore the community health services for the West Side," Janice Oda-Gray, a Near West Side resident, said outside the election board's office with her fellow coalition members. "This is indeed an exciting time for the West Side of Chicago."

Area residents would fund the center through a .025 percent property tax increase. Homeowners who pay $4,000 in property taxes, for example, would see a $16 annual increase. The funds could only be used for mental health services in the community and would be overseen by a governing commission of local residents. 

If approved, the West Side clinic would be the second EMHSP in Chicago since the Community Expanded Mental Health Services Act was signed into law in 2011 by then-Gov. Pat Quinn.

Chicago's North River residents approved the first EMHSP, called the Kedzie Center, in 2012. The mental health center, which garnered support from nearly 72 percent of local voters, opened in the city's Irving Park neighborhood in 2014.

Public mental health clinics have repeatedly been at the "front lines of budget cuts" in Chicago, Oda-Gray said, noting that the number of city-run clinics has dropped from 19 in 1991 to six today. 

"The [West Side] center will not be a panacea to cure all social ills, but it can address issues early on," she stressed. "There is a need for the West Side expanded mental health center. Mental health touches all of us."

Coalition member Jackie Ingram said her North Lawndale community is "besieged by daily violence." 

"As a community, we need a mental health center that will develop resources to save, enrich and reshape our lives for a better future," she said. "Human behavior and mental health affects everyone. No one is immune, and the smallest trigger can send anyone into a rage. We are trying to get our normal back, and we all know it's not been normal for a long time on the West Side." 

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