ALTON, ILL. - With the January legislative session looming, many Illinois residents worry their lawmakers are no closer to passing a budget. The impact of this historic budget impasse has been devastating. A vital program for many, Meals on Wheels, is struggling to survive in Alton.
In this case, the victims of this budget crisis are poor, retired seniors. At southern Illinois' largest senior service agency, they say it’s increasingly challenging to help their 30,000 area seniors.
Every day, retired Army vet Jerome Tucker opens the freezer, grabs packages of frozen meals, and loads them into his car. Then he's off, delivering to dozens of seniors.
"There are just a lot of elderly that really depend on you,” he says, "They're really smiling and carrying on and they don't want you to leave."
He says it's different now, since lawmakers have continually failed to pass a budget. Senior Services Plus used to deliver 650 hot meals every day. Now, it's 420 frozen meals, delivered just once a week.
"It's a shame," he says. "I think they ought to go along with us on our route and see these people. Some are really in bad shape and look forward to seeing you every day, and we just can't do it anymore."
The first stop on Thursday’s route is Cora Huff. The 76 year-old worked as a bartender for 35 years. She's been retired for a decade, now scraping by on social security and these frozen meals.
"Sometimes I'll split the meals up to make two meals out of one box,” she says.
With the driver coming once a week now, she gets nervous.
"I fell a few times and had to drag myself to the door," she says. 'And then they just recently told me I have Parkinson's disease."
But Huff still feels lucky; she'll spend Christmas Day with her grandkids.
Sixty percent of the Meals on Wheels seniors have no family in the area.
"There's a lot of them that never see anybody all day," Tucker says. "One I found that fell had been laying there all night. He was wedged between a chair and a table.”
Back at Senior Services Plus, Executive Director Jonathan Becker says the benefit of these $8 meals (of which the state pays $4) is clear.
"A meal on wheel helps keep someone in their home,” he says, “A nursing home Medicaid bed is $150 a day. It only costs $800 a year for Meals on Wheels. It’s so much more cost effective.”
This program also keeps Tucker from losing hope. The 72 year-old was just diagnosed with lung cancer. His chemotherapy is now scheduled around his deliveries.
"They're more than friends,” he says about the senior citizens along his routes, “I look forward to it every day."
In Illinois, 50 social service agencies have shut down because of the budget crisis. The new legislative session begins in early January when budget talks should resume.