“Angels don’t speak English, they speak emotion,” Edgar, a gaunt 24-year-old, tells Ryann Billitteri as she approaches him outside the Taco Bell at Dearborn and Van Buren Wednesday afternoon. “The translation is through your life....”
He continues, blending near-poetry and conspiracy theories, wild claims and philosophical riffing, as Billitteri, a caseworker at Thresholds, gently steers him out of the rain and into the restaurant, where she buys him a Taco Supreme (“If you could bless me with extra sour cream on the side,” he says) and tries to get Edgar to sign a form to help him get off the street and into housing. Where he sleeps now, he says, is “classified.”
Edgar sits and talks. Billitteri, team lead of Thresholds’ homeless outreach program, listens, silently proffering a pen. But he doesn’t sign. She’s been trying for months.
Only about a third of Illinoisans who need treatment for mental illness get it; social services in the state are perennially underfunded, trimmed to the bone after years of sweeping budget cuts.
“Since time immemorial,” said Heather O’Donnell, senior vice president of public policy and advocacy at Thresholds, which provides a range of mental health, addiction and housing support for the disadvantaged, plus guiding the formerly incarcerated as they transition back into society. “This has been happening for decades; it’s just snowballing because of the pandemic.”
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