(Photo by Chris Hunkeler, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
This is the sixtth article in ongoing reporting on poverty alleviation as part of a listening tour of five Philadelphia neighborhoods conducted by Generocity in partnership with United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. It was not reviewed before publication
Dr. Eric Edi, chief operating officer of The Coalition of African and Caribbean Communities (AFRICOM) said it would great to have a simplified, standardized, but holistic benefits application form that will capture the needs and the eligibility of a person/family for the services to which they are entitled.
First, Edi said with the current COVID-19 precautions and restrictions, a one-apply for benefits would be innovative and safer.
Second, this form would reduce the workload and increase efficiency for the service providers and community-based organizations which are trusted partners for low-income and immigrant families.
“The clients would be happier because many who went to the welfare office reported that the current application process could be stressful and frustrating” Edi said. “The ‘Pennsylvania Application for Benefits’ needs an overhaul. Not everyone has the digital capacity to complete an online application and upload required documents. Those who walk in the welfare office do complain about the hours they must wait before being served.”
Third, Edi believes that the one-apply for benefits would eliminate hesitancy and fear, which sometimes comes from misinformation or misunderstanding of policies like the new Public Charge Rule for immigrants. The Public Charge Rule caused numerous families to refrain from applying for benefits.
AFRICOM led awareness campaigns to explain in different languages the implications of the new ruling. Edi hopes that the Biden administration will also revisit the Public Charge Rule as part of their initial immigration executive orders.
Fourth, although Edi concurs that the one-apply for benefit is very feasible, he would insist on making the “new form” less invasive. Public benefits are available to documented persons and U.S. citizens only. Undocumented individuals are not eligible for these benefits.
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In Southwest Philadelphia, community and faith-based organizations, and community development corporations work together to mitigate the impact of remote working and maximize their service to residents. One successful example is how Southwest CDC and AFRICOM work in tandem.
Edi said both organizations have phone lines available to help residents apply for LIHEAP, rental and mortgage assistance, home repair programs, school enrollment, health insurance, pandemic unemployment compensation, and other benefits.
But all this starts with a vigorous awareness campaign about the existing benefits and the deadlines to apply. the Southwest CDC’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC) meets every month.
“We discuss programs, outreach to the residents, and best practices to facilitate the application process while maintaining safe social distancing. So far, flyers distribution, setting information tables at grocery stores (Shoprite, Save A Lot), and social media posts have generated positive outcomes,” said Edi.
For the African immigrant communities, AFRICOM also helps small business owners fill out SBA PPP applications. Clients come to the office with their documents by appointment. They scan and upload their papers to complete any application.
AFRICOM received funds from private foundations to support families left out of local, state, or federal assistance. Last year, AFRICOM provided direct cash assistance to 212 people (77% of whom were ineligible to receive public assistance).
Amy (not her real name), a 43-year-old Southwest resident, said AFRICOM helped her when she was struggling. A hairstylist who was laid off during the pandemic, AFRICOM gave Amy food as well as $1,400 toward her rent over two months.
A single mother of a 19-year-old son, Amy knows Edi through their church. That is how she learned AFRICOM could help her meet basic needs. Amy is now working “on and off” and grateful for the temporary aid from AFRICOM.
“We have joined groups and partners to advocate for the inclusion of undocumented people and families in future COVID-19 relief packages,” Edi said. “It is nothing but a human right and a better way to stand collectively against the pandemic.”
Lola Decarlo-Coles, administrator at Catholic Social Services’ Southwest Family Service Center (SFSC), said anyone interested in applying for benefits can call their office and ask for a benefits counselor. “Over the phone appointments are being scheduled usually within one week. An intake assessment is completed over the phone which will tell you what benefits you and your family may qualify for,” said DeCarlo-Coles.
Applications are completed online due to COVID-19. Documents can be dropped off to the counselor at the office, mailed or uploaded and sent via email.
Decarlo-Coles said staff works on-site but applications have been online since COVID-19 started in March. COVID-19 has greatly increased the local demand for benefits. SFSC’s benefits counselors do a quick check via phone to see what benefits the person/family may be eligible for.
SFSC’s food pantry is open on Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. or until the food runs out. They also have a diaper/formula pantry open doing these hours. SFSC also has some COVID-19 relief rent, mortgage and utility assistance currently. “It goes by the household income; call to see if you qualify for assistance,” said Decarlo-Coles.
Generocity is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.-30-
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