082315-nws-housing

Alexander Housing Authority Interim Executive Director Tom Upchurch (left) talks to residents of Elmwood Apartments in Cairo on Friday, Aug. 21.

CAIRO — The Illinois Department of Human Services this week shuttered a public aid office in Illinois’s poorest county.

With the office closing Wednesday, Alexander County residents needing face-to-face assistance signing up for or with questions regarding medical, food and cash benefits will have to travel to nearby Mounds in Pulaski County. 

Case managers at the resource centers are charged with reviewing applications and helping people apply for aid that includes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is for pregnant mothers and their young children; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and state Medicaid benefits.

DHS spokeswoman Veronica Vera said the decision was not driven by the state’s budget fiasco, but rather because state officials noted slow traffic at the public aid office in Cairo. About 15 people per day visit the office, she said, and even fewer visit the office daily in Mounds.  

The Mounds office is about 8 miles — or 15 minutes — from Cairo. She noted that public transportation is available for those without vehicles, provided by the Shawnee Mass Transit District. 

“This is about efficiency,” Vera said. “This is about this particular FCRC had very slow traffic and it is in the interest of our clients to consolidate it with the Pulaski County FCRC. This is not about budget cuts.”

Vera said the consolidation will save the state about $65,000 annually in leasing costs. The Mounds location was chosen over Cairo, she said, because the building where the Cairo office was located has structural problems related to sink holes. No employees will lose their jobs; all five employees in the Cairo office are being transferred to Mounds, she said. 

The decision to shutter the public aid office in Cairo comes as the Alexander County Public Housing Authority faces financial turmoil and allegations have come to light, based on federal and agency documents and a review by The Southern Illinoisan, that money was spent on employees intended for resident programs and maintenance of public housing developments.

Hundreds of adults and children in Cairo rely on public housing, including two developments that have deteriorated to the point of being described as “third world,” rat infested, and possibly containing dangerous black mold or other health hazards.

Many of these housing residents also rely on state public aid to provide food for their families. Vera said Alexander County residents can continue to access those services, either by visiting the Mounds office, or talking with state employees by phone. Applications are also accepted online, she said.

Vera said state aid recipients are not required to have face-to-face meetings with state workers, and the offices are open statewide only for those who prefer that option, she noted.  

According to the U.S. Census, about one-third of Alexander County residents live at or below the poverty line, compared to 14 percent statewide. More than half of the county’s children are living in poverty, according to Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center. The population in Alexander County is about 7,600; and in Cairo about 2,600.

She noted that the Mounds office was just a few miles away from the one in Cairo, and also said there was an office in the region in Decatur. “I don’t know how far that one is,” said Vera, whose DHS administrative office is located in Chicago, of the Decatur office. 

Decatur is east of Springfield, about 3 hours and 40 minutes north of Cairo. There are other offices much closer than Decatur, including one in Anna and Marion, according to DHS's office, though she did not mention those. 

Vera said there are 147 Family Community Resource Centers statewide, in nearly every county. The last day for the office to be open in Alexander County was Tuesday. The county located at the southern tip of the state is consistently ranked, by a number of health, welfare and income factors, the most destitute county in Illinois. Vera said there are no immediate plans to shutter or consolidate offices in other areas, even while noting all services are available online or by phone.  

The aid office in Cairo was located at 1401 Washington Ave. DHS’s website lists the Cairo office as being in Pulaski County, along with the office in Mounds, though Cairo is in Alexander County. The Pulaski County office in Mounds is at 422 S. Blanche St. 

Molly.Parker@TheSouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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