Phila. sets up centers to help residents get government benefits

By Lydia O’Neal, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: July 10, 2014

Mayor Nutter’s office said Tuesday that it had established six centers where residents will be able to get help applying for a host of government benefits, including food stamps, Medicare, and tax breaks.

Michael Dorsey picks up information after the opening of the new BenePhilly center at 1233 Locust St., one of six such centers in the city. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

Michael Dorsey picks up information after the opening of the new BenePhilly center at 1233 Locust St., one of six such centers in the city. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

“Every year, eligible Philadelphia residents leave millions of dollars on the table by not enrolling in critical benefits programs,” said Eva Gladstein, who heads the mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.

In response, the city has established BenePhilly, a program that aims to place counselors trained in benefits at existing social-service agencies, including Project HOME and Catholic Social Services. Clients walking into Project HOME, which deals primarily with the homeless, would be made aware of local, state, and federal benefits not directly connected to homelessness, such as help with Medicaid, earned-income tax credits, or winter heating bill assistance.

“Our goal is not just to complete that application, but to follow through to the result – to get that money in the recipient’s pocket,” Gladstein said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Philadelphia FIGHT, an AIDS service organization in Center City that will house a BenePhilly center.

Van Truong, a counselor at Philadelphia FIGHT, said BenePhilly would make his job of getting new immigrants, the jobless, and the homeless on their feet much easier.

Truong described the plight of two clients, HIV-positive refugees who fled Myanmar because they could not get access to medication in their country.

“It’s been two weeks and we’re already applying for them to get Medicaid and food stamps,” he said. “We usually have to talk to lots of different people and services to do this, but now with BenePhilly it’s all in the same place.”

Tre Alexander, a Philadelphia FIGHT counselor who deals with incarcerated felons on the brink of release, said the BenePhilly program “is wonderful for my prison guys.”

“BenePhilly kind of fits this great model together,” he said of his reintegration-based social work. Former inmates “have so many barriers when they get home in the first place. This is so necessary for a population that is so marginalized.”

BenePhilly will be helped by Benefits Data Trust, a databased community outreach organization, through a $1.3 million contract paid for by federal grant money, the city said. Benefits Data Trust will provide training for counselors and applications for those seeking welfare, as well as services from the private benefits firm Solutions for Progress.

For now, BenePhilly centers will operate at Philadelphia FIGHT at 1233 Locust St.; Catholic Social Services at 4400 N. Reese St.; the People’s Emergency Center at 3939 Warren St.; Project HOME at 1515 Fairmount Ave.; Utilities Emergency Services Fund at 1617 John F. Kennedy Blvd.; and United Communities Southeast Philadelphia at 2029 S. Eighth St.

“We try to locate our centers in high-poverty areas of the city,” Gladstein said, adding that the city hopes to open several more centers in other high-poverty areas over the next six months.

Over the next year, the mayor’s office hopes to submit 4,000 applications and get 2,500 people enrolled in government benefits.

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