Rossana Rodriguez is a theater professional, former teacher, and member of Chicago’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. Since 2019, she has represented the 33rd Ward in Chicago’s City Council where she has championed the public mental health ordinance Treatment Not Trauma, a plan which has been embraced by advocates of defunding the Chicago Police Department. This position has put her at odds with the pro-cop austerity agenda of the Lightfoot Administration.
As Alderman, you have fought to get cops out of mental health crisis response and reopen Chicago’s public mental health clinics. How did those clinics close in the first place?
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez: It’s austerity, right? They say they can’t afford something as they continue to inflate the budget of police. Chicago had, originally, nineteen public mental health clinics. Under Mayor Daley, they were reduced to twelve. Then, Mayor Rahm Emanuel—as we all know—closed down six more clinics. One of the clinics got privatized, so we have five mental health clinics that still run publicly in the city of Chicago. There is very little access to mental health at a time when we need it so much.
Mayor Lightfoot claims mental health is a priority of hers, so why did she reject your plan?
That was my first fight in City Council—to reopen the clinics. We really tried to convince the administration to invest in the public mental health clinics. Mayor Lightfoot says this matters to her, but they would not do it. The argument that they gave us was that the clinics were underutilized, that people were not using the clinics. And we asked—so why are people not using the clinics? If we have this big need, like, if we are saying we want to invest this money on mental health because people don’t have access to mental health, why are the clinics underutilized? The real reason is that they are not promoted. There is no website for the public mental health clinics; you have to find their numbers on another site and call them. I think the city is using every excuse possible to discourage people from using the clinics.
Why do you think that is?
The reality is that the public mental health system is being broken on purpose. The mayors have had neoliberal ideas and policies that want to get the government out of being a service provider so that we continue trying to rely on privatized services and on the nonprofit industrial complex. But we cannot let our social safety net be that weak that we rely on organizations that rely on grants which could disappear. And nonprofit workers are being exploited! Burnout in nonprofit organizations is real, they do not pay social workers well. We can’t keep having situations where patients see a social worker a few times and then they have to find a new one when they leave the nonprofit.
What is Mayor Lightfoot’s proposal?
It is exactly the same approach that President Trump put forward as part of police reform. The “Co-Responder Model.” A police officer still responds to a mental health crisis but there are social workers with them. That is not enough. Police have no business being there. If a brown or Black person in Chicago is going through a mental health crisis and you bring an armed officer, I think the first thing they would think is: “I might get killed.”
You are sponsoring the Collaborative for Community Wellness’ ordinance, Treatment Not Trauma. What is that alternative?
Ha! I did not name it that. The proposal was baptized into the movement as Treatment Not Trauma and I love that name! First, we reopen the clinics. Then, we expand the scope of services. We attach mobile crisis units to each one of the mental health clinics and then we can send these crisis units into the community to find the people who most need the services and their families. And we don’t send CPD to respond to mental health crises.
Is Lightfoot more receptive of your proposal this year now that Treatment Not Trauma is better known?
The Administration is saying that we need to do a Co-Responder Model first and then build on that to possibly move into a no law enforcement model. But several cities did this and tested it for us already. These programs are rooted in the CAHOOTS Program in Eugene, Oregon which has been operating for 31 years. In her budget address, Mayor Lightfoot said—and I feel like she was talking directly at me—she said “Chicago is not some town in Oregon. If we’re going to do crisis response, it needs to be tested on the streets of Chicago.” And I hear that argument a lot, like, “Oh, we have more diversity here.” To be honest, I think it is just reduced to the fact that yes, we have a lot of Black and brown people here. I have a feeling that this is actually a racist argument. People who are in distress, people who are suffering, are not different in Eugene, Oregon or Chicago. They are people.