Jul. 17, 2015 11:46 am

For PEC, social services + community development are key to West Philly

With new leadership, West Philly-based CDC maintains dual model

When Kathy Desmond took over as president and CEO of the People’s Emergency Center, the West Philadelphia-based nonprofit community organization, she brought a new set of skills and expertise to the organization’s leadership.

Desmond’s background is in child welfare and social work. Her predecessor, Farah Jimenez, who stepped down from the top spot to accept a position at the School Reform Commission, had a background in community development and finance.

Does this signal change for the organization?

Not exactly, according to Desmond. Changes are on the horizon for PEC, but one thing that will stay the same is its dual model of providing both social services and community development programs.

“There’s one shared mission between us,” Desmond said. “It’s just that the work happens on different levels, on the micro-level with individuals and on the macro-level with the community and other organizations.”

On the community development side, PEC develops and manages permanent affordable housing units, offers computer classes to local residents and runs a time exchange, in which people exchange services with one another without payment. It is also the commercial corridor manager for Lancaster Avenue, where it is headquartered.

On the social services side, it offers counseling and case management for families and individuals, on-site health care, job training programs and emergency and transitional housing.

There’s a lot of symmetry between the two sides of the organization, Desmond said, in that one side doesn’t occupy the organization more than the other. She added that PEC’s model is a reflection of an ongoing evolution in how it serves the community — a process that reflects the broader evolution of community development in the U.S.

Started in 1972 by a local church ministry, PEC provided food and emergency shelter to single women and families in need. It also served as a way for Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania students to engage with poverty and homelessness. Over the years, it tacked on different types of programs and activities as its role in the community and its organizational capacity expanded. (See its official timeline here.)

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In 1992, PEC first delved into community development when it acquired and renovated a property adjacent to its headquarters. Since then, it has taken on a range of development projects, including affordable housing and mixed-use development.

PEC wasn’t the only organization to follow this course. In the 1990s, community development organizations across the country moved towards providing more comprehensive services, according to a 2012 study from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. The study highlights how the trend was powered by the idea that individuals and communities needed to be improved simultaneously to create real change, a concept that had been simmering in the sector as early the 1960s.

Other Philadelphia organizations have also expanded the range of their services.

“It’s fairly common for CDCs today to use as comprehensive an approach to community development in their neighborhoods as they have the capacity to do,” said Garrett O’Dwyer, policy and communications associate at the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC).

He cited Project HOME, which works across the city, and the North Philadelphia-based Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha as examples of organizations with a comprehensive approach.

The reason organizations may be limited in what kind of services they can offer comes down to capacity. “In terms of barriers to entry for a CDC, it would be staff capacity and the capital and resources to do it,’ O’Dwyer said.

He added that older, larger organizations, such as PEC, tend to have more capacity to expand the range of their services.

But is more always better? It depends on the community’s needs and what other services are available, according to O’Dwyer.

In the section of West Philadelphia where PEC operates, which includes the neighborhoods of Belmont, Mantua, Saunders Park and West Powelton, the poverty rate is over 50 percent, according to the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO). It was also designated as a federal Promise Zone by the Obama Administration last year, a program that targets local communities in desperate need of assistance.

To Desmond, PEC’s comprehensive approach is absolutely necessary to the community they serve.

“We work with people to try to give them the tools to live independently and maintain self sufficiency,” Desmond said.

But unless their community is also improved, she added, you’re just placing them back into what is often the source of the problem in the first place. “We don’t want to place people back in communities where poverty has really decimated them.”


Image via Flickr user Kim Woodbridge.


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