Wednesday, March 21, 2012

End of an Era? Hull House Closes Its Doors

In January 2012, one of the nation’s oldest and most famous settlement houses, Hull House in Chicago, announced that it is closing its doors this spring and filing for bankruptcy. The decision to close came after the agency's management and board of trustees worked for two years to reduce operating costs and improve services, officials said.

Jane Addams Hull House Association has provided child care, domestic violence counseling, job and literacy training, services for senior citizens and housing assistance for 60,000 people annually in the Chicago area at nearly four dozen sites. The organization cited the current economic climate for increasing demand for services while compromising fundraising.
Chicagoans are shocked that a 123-year-old institution providing crucial human services will disappear. For those around the country who work at settlement houses—these days, often called community or neighborhood centers—it feels as if there has been a death in the family. Hull House’s co-founder Jane Addams, who later became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, is widely thought of as the mother of the early American settlement house movement. Legions of social workers consider Hull House the birthplace of their profession.

The reason Hull House is disappearing is straightforward: it was overly reliant on government funding in a time of public-sector cutbacks for social services, and particularly for child welfare. At one point, the agency was receiving 85 percent of its revenues from various levels of government. When the federal government, the State of Illinois, Cook County and the City of Chicago began cutting support a decade ago, the agency’s board and staff worked hard to raise more private dollars, but the increased gifts were never enough. Between 2001 and 2011, Hull House’s total revenues dropped from $40 million to $23 million.Other settlement houses struggled with the same problem but managed not to close their doors.

The Hull House agency isn't affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago's Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, which will remain open. The Hull House site on Chicago's West Side is a National Historic Landmark. Nevertheless, I found the closure of the Hull House Association a sad legacy and memory for Jane Addams. I also wonder does this closure mean the settlement house model, the precursor to community practice and macro social work, is irrelevant today?

In graduate school, I concentrated in macro social work. Only 20% of my peers majored in the same area; most concentrated in clinical practice where there would treat individuals and families in case management, psychotherapy, and private practice. I wanted to help change society by learning methods that promote social justice and empowerment in communities. As an MSW alumna, I am disappointed knowing that people still struggle to pay their bills and funding for public assistance services continue to decline. Meanwhile, people seem disenchanted with elected officials. What is the future of community practice? Will Addams' legacy continue to matter in the 21st Century?

[UPDATE 04/2012]: Check out this reflection piece, "Lessons from Hull House." from the New Social Worker magazine. "So, perhaps the greatest lesson from the closure of Hull House is that the field of social work needs to recommit itself to macro policy work."

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