Southwest Philadelphia is a neighborhood of 75,000 people, 25,000 of whom live in poverty. These 25,000 comprise a population ranging from first-generation immigrants to families who have lived in poverty for generations.
To Southwest Community Development Corporation (Southwest CDC) Executive Director Donna Henry, the way to start chipping away at the poverty is to inform more people of the benefits available to them.
“It’s making sure that people understand what the benefits are, trying to get to immigrants who may not fully understand what a generous country the United States can be in terms of benefits or entitlements,” she says. “It’s trying to get people past the barrier, whether it’s language, or whether it’s fear of the unknown.”
Henry is so focused on communicating, that her agency now publishes a community newspaper delivered to almost every household in their area. It also goes into stores, laundry mats and doctors’ offices. The paper includes positive stories and upcoming community events.
“It’s all good news about what’s happening in the community, things that don’t make the news on a citywide level,” Henry said. “Staff members and a volunteer write the stories and put the newspaper together. Other stories are submitted by schools, churches, and community organizations.”
Southwest CDC also operates an after-school program at Patterson Elementary, serving about 80 children every school day from 3:00 to 6:00. The program is free to participants. These are families who do not have money for afterschool care. The program places an emphasis on helping children complete their homework.
“Not all the parents are capable of helping their child with homework, particularly recent immigrants,” said Henry. “In countries like Liberia, most women are not educated so they don’t read and write. Then there are others who are just so tired from their job that it’s easier for us to get it done. We focus on building literacy skills. If families are going to rise out of poverty, we must do more than help them access benefits. We have to ensure that children in low-income communities like Southwest get a better education.”
Under The Promise, Southwest works with its partner organizations ACANA and Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, which serve African and Chinese immigrants respectively. That grouping makes it easy for Southwest to refer foreign speaking clients to those agencies, who in turn refer clients to Southwest for the services it offers such as housing counseling and access to rental and utility assistance.
Once a potential client contacts Southwest, staff members sometimes must work around challenges. For example, one woman called to apply for the Utility Emergency Service Fund (USEF) for her PGW bill. It was past due, and so she was in jeopardy of having her gas shut off, leaving her unable to cook and have hot water.
Nann Bostick at Southwest reviewed the application process with her over the phone, but the client was unable to come into the office because of her work schedule.
Over the next two weeks Southwest and the client exchanged more than seven emails. Nann was able to collect all the client’s required documents to complete a UESF application. Nann then met with the client in the late afternoon so the documents could be signed before being submitted.
After being submitted, her back invoices were paid in full.
The current Philadelphia rental assistance program will pay a family’s rent for 18 months, a significant boost for a family in poverty, yet many potentially eligible families don’t know about the program.
The big change that all Promise agencies are now promoting is the expanded child tax credit. Henry calls the timing of The Promise perfect, coinciding with the tax credit expansion. To a family earning $15,000 a year, she says, “an extra $6,000 is huge.” But she notes again that too many eligible families are still missing out.
“If you haven’t filed taxes before, the government doesn’t know how many children you have or how old those children are, and that’s key to getting the credits,” Henry says. “People are finding out. There’s been a lot of talk about it in the media, and now that people are receiving their checks, they’re talking to their friends and family. We’re calling people. If someone comes in for utility assistance, we ask them about the tax credit. In some ways we’re getting caught up. The program year started in March and so we’re going back to make sure they have applied.”
Southwest plans to launch a job training program within the next year, a crucial step in giving families an opportunity to earn more money and become less reliant on government benefits. But before families can access benefits or enroll in a job training program, Henry says they first must walk in the door, an ongoing challenge for Southwest and agencies like it.
“Our goal is to make sure people know we exist.”