Shoes are placed on a fence outside Mutual Ground's shelter and offices in Aurora, Illinois, June 18, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress

Dozens of shoes dangle from a wrought-iron fence surrounding a 19th century mansion for battered women and children, which plans to close its doors on July 1.

The flip-flops, tiny pink baby sneakers and crutches are token reminders of those once served by the Mutual Ground Inc shelter, which last year housed 400 people but is now another victim of the crisis in U.S. social services amid a deep recession.

If somebody dies, I'm not going to have it on my head, said Linda Healy, executive director of the nonprofit agency that runs the shelter in Aurora, a Chicago suburb where domestic violence is the third-most reported crime.

Mutual Ground, which counts on Illinois for 34 percent of its $1.8 million annual budget, was told last week that its funding would be cut 75 percent in the fiscal year beginning on July 1. Similar places tell the same story across the United States, plagued by the financial crisis.


Executive Director Linda Healy speaks outside Mutual Ground in Aurora, Illinois, June 18, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress

I'm closing the shelter. I can't afford it, Healy said.

The number of women at the shelter has dwindled to three, including a pregnant 18-year-old and her eight-month-old baby boy.

Under normal circumstances, they could remain there for up to eight weeks and then move to a transitional housing program after landing a job. With the shelter closing, they will have no secure place to go.

Wearing a T-shirt, the teenager lifted her son out of a crib in one of the shelter's clean but sparsely furnished bedrooms. She played with him. Despite her worries, she put on a brave front.

I will try to work it out, she said quietly.


Illinois lawmakers have sliced spending on social services to cope with a $9.2 billion budget deficit. Illinois is among 46 U.S. states with budget deficits totaling at least $130 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

With U.S. states facing a collective $281 billion budget gap from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2011, lawmakers have tough decisions to make, said Todd Haggerty, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

He said a wide variety of social services, such as elder care and mental health programs that many states typically farm out to private, mostly nonprofit agencies, are due for cuts.

The severity of cuts is threatening the survival of some agencies and raising fears that children, the poor, the disabled, the elderly and others in desperate need of services will not get them.

I've never seen it this pervasive across the country with such a potential devastating impact on the service community, said Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs at the Child Welfare League of America, a coalition of private and public agencies serving children.

Even before the budget meltdown, some states were failing to meet the full cost of some services, said Jill Schumann, chairwoman of the National Human Services Assembly, which represents about 70 national nonprofit agencies.

The question becomes, 'So at what point do these organizations close their doors or go out of business or say we can subsidize only this many?' said Schumann, who is also president and chief executive of Lutheran Services in America.


Compounding the problem are the dwindling resources for help. Social service advocates warn that when the economy recovers, states will find the service community has been decimated.

States have cut their own human services staffs and are looking for cheaper alternatives, as in Georgia where children are being placed immediately with relatives instead of foster care, bypassing normal child safety checks, Schumann said.


Allison Bleakley rests among signs during a rally against government cutbacks for social services in Aurora, Illinois, June 18, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress

A lot of states are not only cutting programs and funding, they are shunting people out of the systems, she said, adding that the consequences could be dire.

In California, which is struggling to close a $24.3 billion budget gap, California Alliance of Child and Family Services Executive Director Carroll Schroeder saw budget cuts turning foster kids into runaways as their options evaporated.

It's like boing, boing, boing, and then you're gone, Schroeder said. They'll end up on the streets, or they'll end up in juvenile hall or they'll end up in shelter care some place, he said.

Even when federal money is available for programs, many states lack sufficient matching dollars, Spears said. Meanwhile, foundations have pulled back on donations after taking a hit as the stock market declined.

There is this notion that the community can step in, Spears said. But this is the community. These (agencies) are the safety net for the community.

Relying solely on already stretched state government agencies will put children fundamentally at risk, she added.

Back in Illinois, social service agencies have been holding rallies to stop the funding cuts, which Governor Pat Quinn also opposes. The Democrat has pushed an income tax increase instead.

Healy said Mutual Ground would keep its hotline going and offer related counseling and education programs. But the shelter will be gone.

There are not enough bake sales to keep us in business, she said.