By Bill Chenevert
South Philly Review
Posted July 24, 2014
The Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO), in partnership with Benefits Data Trust and Solutions for Progress, have named six centers as locations to assist in accessing benefits to low-income Philadelphians with a program called BenePhilly. One of those six is United Communities Southeast Philadelphia in the Houston Center, 2029 S. Eighth St., where South Philadelphians can go to receive counseling and coaching toward stability and overcoming poverty.
The other five are Catholic Social Services in North Philly, People’s Emergency Center in West Philly, Philadelphia FIGHT and Utilities Emergency Services Fund in Center City and Project HOME in Fairmount.
The centers provide support for enrolling in the following benefits: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, health insurance like CHIP, Medicaid and Medicare, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Care Tax Credit and both state and city property tax credits (including the Homestead Exemption). They’ll also connect women with Women, Infants and Children support, and South Philadelphians to: Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance and Unemployment Insurance.
Shared Prosperity is the City of Philadelphia’s “Plan to Fight Poverty,” and in its 2013 executive summary, it reports “At a staggering 28 percent, Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest among the nation’s 10 largest cities. Over 430,000 of our 1,547,600 citizens live below the federal poverty line.” Additionally, “Black Philadelphians and Latinos are twice as likely to be poor as whites. Poverty is also high among people with disabilities (40 percent) and households headed by single mothers (42 percent).”
That’s 28 out of every 100 Philadelphians living in poverty. And the United Communities Benefits Access Center (BAC) is one of the most successful of the six in the city in terms of getting in the door people who are scared and worried, and sending them back out to the world with a little relief.
From May 1 to July 13 this year, the East Passyunk Crossing BAC scheduled 458 of BenePhilly’s 1,410 appointments and completed 364 of the program’s 1,049 applications.
“Holistically, we can bring a client in and address all of their basic needs. One of the main reasons we’re excited is that, looking at it from the client perspective, it’s a one-stop shop,” Barbara McDuffie, a United Communities staff member with 20 years of service, said. “You’re walking out with the understanding that, by providing these documents, I can be eligible for food stamps to feed my family.”
“A lot of people don’t apply because they think there are some people who need it more than I do,” Gina Shrestha, a newly-hired BenePhilly counselor who’s available for walk-in and phone counseling, said.
The Nepalese-fluent employee helps add a face to an often intimidating and overwhelming process.
“What they don’t realize is that the situation can get worse if they don’t get help. If not a lot of people apply for food stamps, the funding gets lowered because it appears as if they don’t need it —people think that if they apply they’re taking money away from someone who needs it more,” she added.
For McDuffie, she sees a lot of value in the center simply offering empathy and delicacy with the process.
“It’s living life on life’s terms,” she said.
Clients often just want to explain that they broke up with their boyfriend, their son’s on drugs, etc.
“Most people feel the need to explain where they are at this particular time, and these are all the events that lead up to this,” McDuffie explained.
With so many South Philadelphians unaware that they may be eligible for a little assistance from the city or state, giving them the good news might not be concretely measured, but it can be communicated with a slack jaw and wide-eyed relief.
“You can see it in their faces. When you tell them that [with a rent rebate], $650 could be used for other vital necessities” clients are elated, McDuffie relayed. “Every dollar that you can divert back to the home is a success.”
“It’s about stabilizing families in South Philadelphia for us. There are times when people need that temporary assistance,” Francis Carney, the executive director at United Communities, said. “How are we helping them to take those next steps? We’re able to offer them that next level for that basic stability, or we know where we can refer them.”
Walk-ins are able to sit with counselors who ask them a packet-ful of questions and responses raise red flags in terms of referrals of services or eligibility for services.
“Are you a victim of domestic abuse? Do you have a shut-off notice? Are you behind on your mortgage or rent?” McDuffie offered as a few starters. Once eligibilities are noted, the counselors also make sure that clients receive the benefits.
“Somebody comes in for the food cupboard, and we’re going to try to schedule them for an appointment for a BAC counselor,” Carney noted of a strong tactic for cross-referring services within the same building and connecting dots for individuals.
“That’s the main goal for this program — to literally walk someone through the process to the finish line so that they actually receive the benefits,” McDuffie added.
McDuffie and Shrestha both note that the process can be daunting, especially for those with literacy and language barriers.
“Having a one-on-one counselor and knowing that your paperwork is 99.99 percent correct is huge,” McDuffie said, “because sometimes clients won’t understand it and are too embarrassed.”
“I think the clients feel comfortable talking to someone that understands them because it can be pretty frustrating otherwise and lead to people giving up,” Shrestha concurred.
Eva Gladstein, executive director of CEO, said “every year, eligible Philadelphia residents leave millions of dollars on the table by not enrolling in critical benefits programs.” The underlying theme of the BenePhilly Access Centers is that of equalizing the poverty struggle in our city, not letting people skate through life on government spending.
“At least a quarter of Philadelphia is in poverty, and that’s just unacceptable. There’s a very strong stigma against welfare in general,” Shrestha said.
“The people that come through our doors legitimately need help,” McDuffie said. “And what’s so nice about having [BenePhilly] here is that we can help them with a variety of things and then follow the process through to make sure they get it. Enrolling people successfully makes a huge difference.”