Protesters against plan to shutter mental health clinics end 10-hour sit-in at City Hall

Chicago police officers help a protester to stand as members of the "Mental Health Movement" end their day-long sit-in at Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office late in the evening Tuesday in Chicago. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)

Opponents of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close half of the city's mental health clinics protested outside his office for about 10 hours Tuesday, finally leaving around 10:30 p.m. but vowing to continue their fight to keep the clinics open.

The protesters arrived at City Hall soon after noon to protest the cuts, saying the cost-saving measure in Emanuel's proposed budget will make it more difficult for Chicago residents to receive needed mental health services.

"This battle may not be completely won, but the war is definitely not over and can be won by us," said N'Dana Carter, 57, one of 12 protesters who wore blue hospital gowns over their clothes while sitting on the floor outside Emanuel's fifth-floor office.

Some of the protesters said they expected to be arrested after the building closed at 5 p.m., but they said police later told them they would wait out the protest instead of issuing citations or making arrests.

By the time the protesters decided to leave, 10 people wearing hospital gowns -- including people who attend some of the clinics and others associated with the facilities -- were still camped outside the mayor's office, with a lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild standing nearby. Nine people supporting the protesters were also in the lobby as several police officers kept an eye on the crowd.

Dozens of people left earlier in the evening after police refused to allow the protesters and their supporters to use City Hall bathrooms after the building closed. People who left the building after it closed were not allowed back in.

Just before 10 p.m., a supporter of the protesters was able to bring two pizzas up to the fifth floor, even though police were trying to prevent people from entering the building.

The pizzas were met with cheers from the protesters and glares from some of the police officers, one of whom took the elevator back down to the first floor with the woman who brought the pizzas. He could be heard asking for her identification as the doors closed.

A few minutes later, one of the protesters offered a sergeant a slice of pizza in exchange for access to a bathroom. The sergeant laughed and declined the offer.

The core group of protesters stayed well into the night to show Emanuel they oppose his plan to close six of the city's 12 clinics, even though the mayor never made an appearance, said Carter, who lives in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood.

"We're saying to the mayor, 'This is not what the city needs,'" she said while sitting on the floor outside Emanuel's office. "He's written us off completely. At no point has he been willing to talk with us at all."

Carter said she's afraid her therapist, whom she's been seeing for two years, could be laid off.
 
"It just makes me so sad, and it frightens me because I'd have to start all over again," she said. "It's not easy to start over, because you have to relive everything that brought you to where you are now."

Helen Morley, 55, of Lincoln Park, said she's terrified that her therapist could be laid off, too.

"I don't have anybody," said Morley, who said she's been seeing the same therapist for 15 years. "I got me and my therapist. That's it. This is terrible."

Despite the city's financial troubles, trying to save money by cutting mental health services is especially dangerous now because demand for those services is often driven by unemployment and other economic factors, said Darryl Gumm, chairman of the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago.

"When you put a rat against the wall, he's going to fight," said Gumm, wearing a hospital gown outside Emanuel's office. "We're at the point now where we have to stand up and fight."

rhaggerty@tribune.com