A standing-room-only crowd greeted U.S. Rep. Sean Casten at his first town hall meeting Jan. 13 at the Wheaton VFW Post 2164.
“I didn’t plan on my first time meeting with my constituents to be about the (government) shutdown,” Casten said.
Casten said that rather than spending time debating the need for or against a border wall, his goals were to make people aware of who has been affected by the shutdown and a few local agencies available to assist affected federal employees with their needs.
The number of federal workers in the 6th District affected by the partial shutdown and district households dependent on those federal programs and agencies are in the thousands with no foreseeable end in sight, Casten said.
About 4,300 federal employees within the 6th District are among the 800,000 around the country, with some furloughed and others required to work without a paycheck since the shutdown more than three weeks ago, Casten said.
Nearly 13,000 district households are dependent on food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children Program, which are only funded through February, he said.
A number of food banks and pantries throughout the area will serve as backup in providing food for those affected. A list of these programs can be found on Casten’s Twitter feed and are also available online at the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s website.
Casten said that it is not just the neediest people who are being affected by the shutdown.
The United States Department of Agriculture, the agency that provides farmers with the data they need to plan the upcoming planting season, is closed.
“There’s nobody home at the IRS,” Casten said.
And while there was some good-natured joking about whether that was a problem, Casten reminded people of the new tax bill that was passed last year and the confusion it could cause without tax experts available to answer questions.
Housing and Urban Development is basically closed. With 1,800 landlords in the district who provide HUD-assisted housing to people, cutting off funding to them, even for a short time, could potentially trigger a huge problem with homelessness, Casten said.
He added that “there is an irony” to the fact that border security is not currently being funded. People legally applying for asylum – “doing everything right” – could soon fall into delinquency due to the courts not being fully funded and therefore not available to hear their cases, Casten said.
Air traffic controllers and TSA workers also are not being paid although they are considered “essential” and are required to come to work. Food banks are setting up at local airports in anticipation of the food insecurity TSA workers may soon face.
The DuPage Federation on Human Services and the DuPage County information and referral number at 630-407-6500 are local resources that can provide information about social services in the area, as well as how to access those services.
DuPage Dispensary of Hope can help with accessing medications. Meanwhile, World Relief DuPage in Wheaton can provide immigration assistance, and local credit unions have indicated they will offer zero-interest loans to individuals to help them through the short-term.
“We will do our best to be a resource,” Casten said.
The best way to reach Casten’s office is to call the Washington, D.C. location at the number listed on his website, he said.
Wheaton resident Lisa Brennan, a recently-furloughed federal employee, said her concern is not so much for herself but for the people she serves. While she said she did not want to debate the need for a wall, she does feel that she and her co-workers are being used as pawns by both political parties.
“We need to get back to work,” Brennan said. “We need to keep our people safe, and we need to keep our people serviced.”
Glen Ellyn resident Eleanor Saliamonas asked if she or her loved ones should be afraid to fly during the shutdown.
Casten praised the air traffic controllers, saying that they do a “heroic job.” He added, however, that creating additional stress for them about being able to provide for their families is not a good idea.
Casten said the reason for the shutdown wasn’t about border security.
“We all want to have strong borders,” he said. “We (the House) have voted to fully fund (the Department of) Homeland Security at 100 percent levels. But we’re not even having the conversation.”
He explained that although the House of Representatives has passed a number of bills that would open parts of the government, the Senate leadership has refused to bring them up for a vote.
Several people at the meeting attempted to steer the discussion back to a debate over the $5 billion for President Trump’s border wall, but Casten directed the conversation back to the needs brought about by the government shutdown.
“If you don’t leave here with a tear in your eye, you’re not understanding the consequences of this,” Casten said. “There’s just massive unintended consequences.”