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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers her first budget address to the city council on October 23. [Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times/ AP]

Urban Violence

‘A Drop in the Bucket’: Anti-Violence Leaders Blast Chicago Mayor’s Budget Plan

A coalition of more than two dozen community groups asked the city to earmark $50 million for gun violence prevention. Lori Lightfoot's proposal calls for far less.

Prominent figures in Chicago’s gun violence prevention movement have criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2020 budget blueprint for not going far enough to support programs designed to stop shootings. The dispute comes as the mayor grapples with an extraordinary budget shortfall. 

For months, more than two dozen organizations have been pressing city leaders to set aside $50 million for community-based violence prevention efforts. But as Lightfoot unveiled next year’s budget proposal during an address on October 23, she indicated that she was seeking a fraction of that amount — $9 million — for violence prevention. 

“This was her first opportunity to show that she is truly committed to making Chicago one of the safest cities in America, but she failed at that opportunity,” the Reverend Ciera Walker-Chamberlain, who runs the group Live Free Chicago and is a leading voice in the push for more anti-violence funding, told The Trace. “It was very disappointing to see.” 

The funding is tucked into a citywide spending package that totals $11.65 billion. Lightfoot is trying to close a yawning budget gap, and the situation has opened her up to new lines of criticism from those who fear that she is backsliding on the progressive agenda that she rode into office. 

Administration officials have said the $9 million figure cited during Lightfoot’s address does not include additional funding for street outreach programs through the Department of Public Health, nor does it count the salaries for the 11 full-time employees of the newly established Mayor’s Office of Public Safety. Together, those items would bring the total amount budgeted for violence prevention up to $11.5 million. 

“Since day one, Mayor Lightfoot has demonstrated her highest priority and greatest responsibility as mayor is ensuring peace and safety in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods,” a spokesman for the mayor’s office, Pat Mullane, said in a statement emailed to The Trace. “And while Chicago is facing a historic deficit, Mayor Lightfoot has made a monumental down payment toward the City’s comprehensive violence reduction strategy by investing $11.5 million in this year’s budget, a seven-fold increase in funding since 2019 — the largest year-over-year increase in recent history — to allow the City to expand community-based street outreach, integrate trauma-informed victim services and provide intensive, youth-focused interventions for those who are at the highest risk of violence.”  

Lightfoot’s address came after a weekend that saw more than 40 people shot — four of them fatally. So far this year, Chicago has recorded more than 400 homicides and more than 1,760 shootings, a marked drop from the same period in 2016, when violence surged to levels not seen in nearly two decades. Despite the decline, Chicago consistently records more killings than New York City or Los Angeles — cities with larger populations. 

During her speech, Lightfoot stressed her dedication to “ensuring the safety of every home and every block in Chicago.” But the funding she proposed for violence prevention  has some people questioning her seriousness.

“The mayor mentioned public safety as her No. 1 calling,” said Marshall Hatch Jr., who runs the MAAFA Redemption Project, a faith-based violence prevention program in the city’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. “I appreciate religious language, but if that language is not matched by a commitment, then it’s pretty hollow.” 

While disappointment in the budget proposal abounds, many community leaders interviewed for this article continued to express support for Lightfoot’s broader anti-violence agenda and praised her hiring of two renowned violence prevention experts to top posts in her administration. 

They also noted that Lightfoot’s proposal sought more funding for gun violence prevention than those from previous administrations and acknowledged the city’s fiscal problems put the mayor in a tricky position. 

Eddie Bocanegra, the senior director of READI Chicago, an anti-violence program run by the Heartland Alliance, said the proposed monies paled in comparison to what New York City and Los Angeles had given to similar efforts. He urged Chicago’s elected officials to find a way to boost spending as they debate the budget in coming weeks. 

“If violence is a core issue that the city and the mayor really want to address, that needs to be reflected in the budget and the amount of support that they’re willing to put behind these programs,” said Bocanegra, who also chaired a committee that advised the Lightfoot administration on public safety issues during her transition into office. “Nine million dollars to work with all the individuals who are at the highest risk of violence is really nothing, and I don’t think it’s going to help much in sustaining the programs that the private philanthropic community has already invested in.” 

Since Chicago’s violence surged in 2016, an array of new community groups have emerged to help reorient at-risk individuals and reduce shootings.  But the work has been almost entirely privately funded. The dearth of public dollars has stopped programs from reaching all those in need, and some worry that the private funding may dry up in years to come. 

Lightfoot made combating gun violence a centerpiece of her bid for mayor, pledging to shore up community-based prevention and intervention programs. Then came the unexpected news, a few days before Lightfoot’s inauguration, that the 2020 budget gap was projected to eclipse $700 million because of ballooning pension payments and expensive borrowing practices under the outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Months later, officials revised that estimate even higher, to $838 million — the biggest shortfall in the city’s modern history

Lightfoot administration officials scrambled for a way to close that gap without taking the widely unpopular step of hiking property taxes. Their solution relies on a mix of debt refinancing, increased taxes on ride-shares and food sold at restaurants, as well as a host of other maneuvers, some of which will need approval from state lawmakers. 

Despite the funding shortfall, some violence prevention leaders were confident that the Lightfoot administration would make good on its commitment to more fully back violence prevention efforts. 

“Nine million dollars is really a drop in the bucket in terms of what we need, but I hope it’s only the beginning,” said Father Michael Pfleger, a renowned violence prevention activist who also serves as the senior pastor at St. Sabina Church on the South Side. 

In his statement, the mayor’s spokesman said that the administration was continuing to work closely with state, county, and private funding partners to maximize investments and resources to “ensure our neighborhoods have access to the services and supports they need and deserve.” 

Conversations about how to tackle gun violence in Chicago have become increasingly intertwined with broader debates about the socioeconomic ills that have undercut neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, where much of the violence is concentrated

Lightfoot touched on that link during her budget address, speaking about gun violence in the same breath as affordable housing, homelessness, and mental health services. To some, the speech signaled that she grasped the complexity of the battle against gun violence — even if she was unwilling or unable to better fund violence prevention efforts this time around. 

“I was moved to tears by her speech,” said Teny Gross, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. “What I saw was a mayor with a heart for the community and the well-being of the whole of the city in mind.”

Gross added that $9 million was a “good downpayment” t0 make up for decades of disinvestment and discrimination in South and West Side communities, but much more money was required. “The mayor knows it,” he said. “The question is: Will the aldermen and the larger, affluent communities support the mayor in doing the right thing and spending the necessary $50 million?” 

As the debate plays out, advocates plan on using the coming budget debates to push for more funding. Their efforts will focus on an ordinance introduced in the City Council in September that would provide the sought-after $50 million for a new executive department to concentrate exclusively on gun violence prevention. 

“We’ll still be meeting alderman, we’ll be meeting with community members, and canvassing and making phone calls and pushing it every way we know how,” said Walker of Live Free Chicago. “We’re fighting for people to live. This is literally a life-and-death situation.”