McLean County’s median household income is almost $65,000, but panelists at a McLean County League of Women Voters forum Tuesday night said despite that, the problem of poverty is creating waiting lists for social service agencies and leaving some people without help.
Lisa Hirtzig was among those who shared their personal stories. Hirtzig was in a women’s shelter with a broken neck when she learned about the YWCA’s Labyrinth House which provides transitional housing for formerly imprisoned women. Hirtzig grew up in foster care and went from one abusive relationship to the next.
"I lost my job. I lost my home which made me lose my car. Losing my car, I had no way to get to anything," she said. "It really put me down. I had nothing ... nobody," she told a packed Community Room at the Normal Public Library.
Starla Hays has been at Mayors Manor in Bloomington for nearly three years. The 26-unit apartment building provides permanent, supportive housing to formerly homeless, single adults. Hays was married for 22 years and after a divorce, she turned to drugs and alcohol and her downward spiral began.
"Mayors Manor saved my life," she said wiping tears from her eyes.
"I don't want you to feel sorry for me, I just want you to help because there are so, so many out there," she said referring to others who need assistance, often because one crisis was amplified by poverty and a lack of resources.
"We have working poor in McLean County. People are working two jobs and still are in poverty," said Mayors Manor Representative Tasha Davis.
Illinois State University graduate student Jeanna Campbell explained why she started the School Street Food Pantry. While she was an undergraduate, Campbell found herself working for poverty-level wages and scrounging for food. As a Type 1 diabetic, she also had costly prescriptions that she bought instead of groceries, only to find her blood sugar falling to dangerously low levels when she had nothing to eat at the end of the month.
Campbell said she wound up taking an even lower-paying job to qualify for government assistance when she encountered health problems and had no more sick days.
"It was definitely a cycle and a situation that left me in a bad place."
According to the Heartland Alliance, slightly more than 21,200 people in Mclean County live in poverty. Center for Hope Ministries Outreach Coordinator Pat Turner, who fled Chicago public housing, said poverty is a multiplier because those in it can't rely on personal resources to get past a setback.
"It's bigger than we think," Turner declared as she pointed out her ministry served 4,600 individuals in its food pantry last year.
Turner believes lawmakers need to enact legislation that addresses some of the root causes of poverty.
"Racial injustice, ageism, sexism, inequality, classism—those are the things that feed into poverty and leave people feeling hopeless," she said.
Turner, who is also a candidate for Normal Town Council, suggested public policy makers need to initiate systematic changes.
"We've got to get on the preventive end. We've got to start building families. We've got to start investing in our young people and start on the solutions side instead of dealing with it on the crisis side," she said.
Moderator Laurie Bergner of the League of Women Voters of McLean County agreed with an audience member who suggested with so many new minorities in leadership positions in Springfield, now is a good time to start lobbying for legislative changes including raising the minimum wage.
Bergner advised panelists to form a lobbying coalition.
"I think going in groups is important because you have a better chance you'll be listened to," she said.