(Photo by Erin Blewett for Kensington Voice)
This is the 13th 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.
March 14 marked one year since COVID-19 forced Ceiba’s Will González to stop going into his office every day for work.
Over that period, the executive director of Philadelphia’s coalition of Latino community-based organizations whose mission is to promote economic development and financial inclusion watched as the pandemic devastated the people in his constituency. As the Economy League noted last year, deep poverty, health care inequalities, and an overrepresentation in essential occupations placed members of the Hispanic and Latino communities at an elevated risk of contracting the virus.
“[In] a crisis you can do two things, you can roll up in a ball and wait ‘till it’s over or you can fight,” said González, noting that the city’s Hispanic/Latinx communities chose to do the latter. “I think the organizations are coming to realize that individually they can get some work done, but collectively they can do a lot more.”
Philadelphia’s Latinx populations carry one of the heaviest economic burdens in a city notorious for being the nation’s poorest, with a demographic that counts anywhere from 38% to 44% of its people as being in either poverty or deep poverty. In what amounted to legislators’ first real fungible effort to tackle the problem in decades, City Council committed $10 million to the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey as part of Philadelphia’s Poverty Action Fund. The citywide initiative seeks to lift 100,000 residents of all colors and creeds out of poverty over the next five years.
Last month, Council invested the first $5.5 million of that money into the Family Stability Community Challenge, which funds organizations and partnerships that offer free tax preparation, financial counseling, access to wage support, and other financial assistance. The first $1 million of that investment went to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and their partnership with the Latino Equitable Development Collective.
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According to María Quiñones-Sánchez, Philadelphia’s first Latina ever elected to City Council and one of the chamber members who spearheaded the Poverty Action Fund, it’s complete community buy-in that makes the current attempt to excise poverty from the region so potent. As she previously told Generocity, COVID-19 was an obstacle, but City Council realized there was a pressing need and moved forward with the plan anyway.
“What makes the Poverty Action Fund exciting is that our action plan embraces public-private partnerships and using capacity of our community-based organizations to leverage our investment,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. She explained that groups like the LEDC are crucial to making the plan work.
“Through partnerships like the LEDC, we are able to reach people directly where they are,” she continued, “through trusted organizations, rather than creating an unnecessary new bureaucracy.”
The LEDC is one of the most well-organized, influential Latinx organizations in Philadelphia. In partnership with LISC, they seek to reduce poverty and promote an equitable recovery from the pandemic. They’re big goals but within the realm of possibility thanks to leaders like González. And with his group Ceiba at the head of the pack, González has several strong nonprofits behind him as part of his coalition, including Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Inc., HACE, Norris Square Community Alliance, and Esperanza.
While each of these organizations brings something different to the table, including affordable housing assistance, tax preparation services, financial counseling, and more, the goal in partnership with LISC and the Poverty Action Fund is to merge their efforts. The LEDC hopes to create “a place-based, collective service delivery model” to create the ultimate in coordination — one-stop shopping to tackle poverty.
“What we’re trying to do is improve the way that we provide multiple services at one point of contact that is sufficient for the client and brings economies of scale to the organization,” said González. The challenge, he said, is when service providers focus on a single issue and don’t look at a client from a holistic perspective.
“Sometimes we just focus on the service and move on,” he continued. “When you look at all these nonprofits that are part of the collective there’s health care, there’s child care, to middle school to high school to college. There’s housing, there’s weatherization, there’s job opportunities, financial opportunity centers … it’s like a supermarket of social services and things to help lift you.”
The most impoverished community in the nation’s poorest big city
A few years ago, the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce found that Hispanic businesses contributed $486 billion to the national economy, with 3.2 million enterprises, making them the fastest-growing segment of the national landscape. In the decade before the report came out, the Greater Philadelphia region saw Hispanic-owned businesses grow by 28 percent, with a consumer base whose purchasing power was over $4.2 billion. The chamber reported that Hispanic-owned businesses grew almost twice as fast as non-Hispanic-owned businesses, with about 19,000 enterprises in the region.
But at the same time, Philadelphia’s Latinx communities held the highest poverty rate in the city, which various outlets report as being between 38 and 44 percent of the population. According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, that number continues to hold steady since 1970, despite exponential growth in the area’s Latinx populations from 45,000 over 50 years ago to almost 225,000 by 2016. Poverty in Philadelphia’s Latinx communities is almost double the national rate, which at 21 percent, Pew reports, fell 2.5 percentage points over the past 50 years.
“Some of the biggest issues facing the Latino community right now are affordable housing opportunities, employment and education,” said Manuel Delgado, chief operating officer for Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM). Founded in the 1970s by a group of Puerto Rican Vietnam Veterans hoping to serve their community and address quality of life disparities, APM operates in North Philadelphia, offering a wide range of services, including behavioral health centers, early childhood education, affordable housing development, and more. The organization is a member group of the LEDC.
“Underlying all of these challenges is language accessibility,” continued Delgado, who noted that APM offers programs and opportunities to the community regardless of language. “Additionally, the Latino homeless community is invisible and without a voice as they typically do not qualify for services under the Philadelphia definition for homelessness. The existing system remains culturally insensitive to the needs of the Latino homeless.”
"The existing system remains culturally insensitive to the needs of the Latino homeless."
In addition to economic distress, the poverty question is intertwined with the nation’s health care problem. Nowhere is that more prevalent than with Philadelphia’s Latinx populations, who experience some of the country’s worst cases of chronic disease, adverse health outcomes, and inequality in the health care system. The Economy League’s 2019 Health of the City report showed almost 40% of Philadelphia’s Latinx populations rated their health as poor or fair, which is about double the rate of any other demographic in the city.
According to the Economy League, much of the population’s issues with poor health outcomes stem from a lack of access to quality care. They found that Latinxs in Philadelphia often avoid seeking proper care due to several factors related to poverty, including language barriers, citizenship status, unemployment, and a lack of insurance. In 2018, 13% of the city’s Latinx populations was without health insurance despite the Affordable Care Act — again, almost double the rate of any other demographic.
In 2018, 13% of the city’s Latinx populations was without health insurance (which is) almost double the rate of any other demographic.
The combination of all those factors left Philadelphia’s Latinx populations more vulnerable to COVID-19 than most. “What’s going on with COVID is horrendous for everybody,” González told Generocity. “Sadly, when you look at the data, Latinos are in the worst position when it comes to COVID.”
And then there’s the trauma.
A few years ago, researchers handed out a 10-question survey to persons in California and Philadelphia, hoping to determine their ACES score. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study looks at everything from increased rates of diabetes and cancer to depression and anxiety to determine how these traumas affect an adult later in life. Researchers found that childhood poverty was inextricably linked with trauma.
“One of the central components for trauma-impacted communities in the experience of PTSD and longitudinal trauma is the lack of feeling of agency and ownership,” said Anna Stormer, communications and resource development officer for LISC.
She explained that with the partnership between her organization and the LEDC, clients would be made to feel more in control. No one will be handed a form and then sent on their way, said Stormer. Instead, cultural competency, problem-solving, and ownership of the issue will be at the front of their new service model.
“It’s removing that ‘to you’ and using our services in each individual organization in partnership ‘with,’ ‘alongside,’” Stormer continued. “Those words are seemingly insignificant, but they really do have a lot of power behind them.”
A unified voice in Eastern North Philadelphia
As documented by LISC, the Latino Equitable Development Collective came together in January 2018 when 13 of Philadelphia’s most robust Latino nonprofits forged a governing document and held a series of meetings to unify under a common agenda.
Over the next couple of years, these organizations worked together under the leadership of Ceiba to find ways to tackle some of the city’s most challenging issues. They sought resident-led solutions for things like affordable housing, workforce development, and the rights of non- and limited-proficiency English speakers.
Many of these nonprofits call Eastern North Philadelphia home, where over one-quarter of their residents live in poverty, deep poverty, or worse. So last year, when the UWGPJ, in partnership with the City of Philadelphia, launched their first grant cycle under the Poverty Action Fund, LISC and the LEDC saw a real opportunity to make a difference.
“When the Poverty Action Fund RFP came out, we saw the opportunity and seized it,” said González, who noted that the grant is a fantastic opportunity for LISC and all of the LEDC.
“I think what it’s done is it’s brought us even closer together,” he continued. “And [we’re] looking forward to continuing to take that to more engagement, to aggressively and collectively address poverty.”
A vital part of the LEDC’s efforts moving forward is LISC’s involvement. LISC is a community development intermediary organization steeped in Philadelphia’s equitable community development scene for more than 40 years.
According to Stormer, the organization began working in Eastern North Philadelphia about 30 years ago, investing around $16 million in equity loans and grants.
Over the years, LISC worked alongside the LEDC and its partners in tandem and organically, depending on the needs of the neighborhood and the various nonprofits.
LISC has always been a cheerleader for the LEDC, said Stormer, which made the partnership under the Poverty Action Fund a natural fit.
Both groups know that tackling poverty in the Latinx communities in Philadelphia will be a tall order, which is why they have a long list of goals they’re hoping to meet.
While the first round of funding came out just in time for tax season and includes money for tax preparation, access to benefits, wage support, and more, the LEDC has a lofty set of goals that go above and beyond. They hope to safeguard Eastern North Philadelphia residents from displacement; ensure the safety, health, and stability of Latinx people; and enhance cross-referrals and warm handoffs by the end of 2021, among many other things.
And the LEDC hopes to do all of this while bringing Philadelphia’s Latinx communities out from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Quiñones-Sánchez said she feels that the project’s financial aspect is a critical piece of the poverty puzzle that gives the Poverty Action Fund a real chance at success. She added that now, more than ever, things like benefits access work are significantly important.
"If we meet this challenge, we will be bringing hundreds and even thousands of dollars home, directly to the families where they are most needed."
“In addition to the federal tax benefits that far too many Philadelphians leave on the table every year, this work will help families access any stimulus payments that they’re eligible for but have not received,” she told Generocity. “If we meet this challenge, we will be bringing hundreds and even thousands of dollars home, directly to the families where they are most needed. A critical goal of the federal stimulus program is moving families out of poverty, and with our action plan launching Philadelphia is ready to meet that challenge.”
But as Delgado told Generocity, one of the most significant issues the LEDC faces is the affordable housing crisis. Along with a growing population of Latinx people experiencing homelessness, too many in the community are cost-burdened or extremely cost-burdened, meaning they spend either more than 30% or more than 50% of their monthly income on rent or housing.
“APM and its community development partners in the LEDC are the strongest development corporations in the city,” said Delgado. “Collectively we serve Eastern North Philadelphia to address housing affordability as gentrification moves northward in the city.”
Delgado noted that APM takes several different approaches to the issue, with the preservation of the city’s current affordable housing stock being the most imperative.
In addition, he said that construction costs are a problem, as Philadelphia has some of the highest in the nation, and that long-term rental subsidies of at least one year supported by robust social services and financial literacy programs need to be implemented to address homelessness in the Latinx communities. Delgado believes that Project-based Section 8 housing is a critical tool in the fight for affordable housing as well.
In the end, González, LISC, the LEDC, and all of its associated organizations want to see Philadelphia’s Latinx communities come together in one unified voice. While González stressed that their programs are for everyone, from African Americans to Palestinian Americans and more, it’s essential for the city’s Latinx neighborhoods to have their specific needs met.
“For the Latino community there is a unifying language and some culture around that, that keeps us unified in a way for communication and so forth,” González said. “So we just want to make sure that perspective is not lost or that [it is] is understood.”
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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