This is the 15th 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.
In February, the City of Philadelphia committed $10 million in city funding to the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey to spearhead Philadelphia’s Poverty Action Fund, and mobilize a coalition of public, private, community, business and philanthropic groups to address the systemic challenges of poverty.
Diversified Community Services (DCS) is one of the first four organizations to receive a grant from the Fund — as part of a Family Stability Community Challenge which called for proposals connecting individuals and families to important economic security programs
DCS received $1.5 million to provide housing support, benefits access, and tax services.
“We are a deeply-embedded place-based nonprofit agency in Point Breeze, a low-income, predominantly minority South Philadelphia community,” said Otis L. Bullock, the executive director of DCS. “Diversified is a multi-purpose social service agency working with children, adults, and families and provides early childhood education as an integral function of its mission.”
“Most organizations which try to address poverty tend to focus only on either adults or children,” he said, “but we take a multigenerational approach. Our vision is a diverse, prosperous, and vibrant community where all residents are treated with dignity and respect — a place where the impacts of poverty are acknowledged, and action is taken to empower those in need.”
Although DCS was formally incorporated in 1968, it has its roots in the University of Pennsylvania settlement house camps of the 1890s. “We have the same focus now as we did then, but the way we do things has certainly evolved over the last 100 years,” said Bullock. “We serve nearly 8,000 children, youth, adults, and families, emphasizing education and skill-building.”
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“We do two things really well,” he explained, “early childhood education and housing, so our focus now is on building on those services and figuring out how we can do things even better.”
DCS runs two early childhood education centers in Point Breeze which are nationally recognized and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and have achieved Keystone STAR 4 ratings
“We thought, how can we build on that success? How do we level up?” Bullock said. “One way to do that is to provide training and support for the parents of our students. Our HIPPY program (which stands for Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) is a free school readiness program that empowers parents to be their child’s first teacher.”
“We also offer housing development and affordable housing management — initiatives which stemmed from the housing counseling programs which we we’ve been doing for over 30 years,” Bullock added. “We had been providing people with housing counseling, and helping people stay in their homes though rental assistance, but that’s only stabilizing them. So the next step was obviously being a developer of affordable housing so that people can own their own homes.”
"We are taking what we do really well in housing and moving it to the next level."
“Just like with our early childhood education programs,” he added, “we are taking what we do really well in housing and moving it to the next level.”
The $1.5-million-dollar grant from the Poverty Action Fund will allow DCS to expand their services to cover much more of South Philadelphia. The existing housing services will expand from one location to four and will include neighborhoods on the east side of Broad Street as well as their historic location in Point Breeze.
This move will also bring two important new partnerships into play, allowing DCS to work with both United Communities of Southeast Philadelphia and with SEAMAAC, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition. With the addition of these partners, DCS will be poised to do focused anti-poverty work on both the east and west sides of South Philadelphia, from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River.
“Diversified serves a predominantly African-American population,” Bullock said, “and while United Communities is more diverse, it still serves a very similar population. SEAMAAC has a really strong reputation in Southeast Asian community — and I believe that this partnership will allow us to serve that population in a way that is culturally relevant with no language barriers.”
“We’ve been trying to find more opportunities to partner with these organizations for several years, and this grant provided us a way to turn those discussions into realities,” he said. “Each organization brings different strengths to the partnership, and together we can provide so much more to those we serve.”
Bullock is gratified by the way the funding has been offered.
“The Poverty Action Fund money has been unbelievably flexible,” he said, “and I think that’s one huge benefit of this public-private partnership between the city and the United Way. We’ve been granted $1.5 million dollars. That amount of money is allowing us to forge these these partnerships in a meaningful way, and not ask other nonprofit organizations who are struggling to do things for free.”
“It has given us enough money to focus on a comprehensive approach to addressing poverty,” he added. “I may not be an expert in how to really reach out to the Southeast Asian community and earn their trust, but SEAMAAC is. So now people can go where they are comfortable to get their services, within their own neighborhoods, but they not only get the services that DCS provides, they also get all the other services that are set up through this partnership.”
So how does a single mom in South Philadelphia, one who is working two jobs and barely has time to think, know what resources are offered through DCS?
“Prior to the pandemic,” said Bullock, “most of our services relied upon foot traffic in the neighborhood. Once the pandemic turned everything on its head, we had to adapt the way we provided services. Before, people had to come into an office to meet with a counselor, and our office hours might not have coincided with our clients’ work schedules. Now we can do these meetings virtually via Zoom, and that has increased our accessibility.”
“In terms of letting people know what we do? Well, part of this grant money will be used to do a mail campaign to 28,000 low-income households in South Philadelphia,” he said. “This mail campaign will run throughout the year, and the mailing will focus on whatever is relevant now. For example, it’s currently tax time, so we will focus on how we can help with that. In the second quarter of the year, there may be more of a focus on keeping your utilities on and other housing issues. In the summer, we will be able to leverage our early childhood education programs, many of which are free. With mailers throughout the year focusing on various programs, we will be able to create a comprehensive outreach to those we serve.”
Prior to coming to DCS, Bullock worked in the city as a lawyer with the public defender’s office, doing criminal justice work and family law. But he soon realized that problems his clients faced were much larger than the cases that brought them to him.
He recognized poverty as one of the largest issues in Philadelphia but was frustrated that no one seemed to be addressing it or even talking about it in any meaningful way. He went to work for City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, and then for Mayor Michael Nutter in what is now the Office of Community, Empowerment and Opportunity.
“My mission in life is to fight for and empower those who are most vulnerable,” he said. “It’s the reason I became an attorney, it’s the reason I went to work for City Council and the mayor, and it’s the reason I came to Diversified Community Services.”
“I have a great team at Diversified. Every day, we wake up and say ‘where are we falling short? How can we do this better?’ The driving force in all our programming is being better, serving people better, and empowering more people.”
And that’s what’s what the funding will help them do.
“I think that the best thing coming out of this funding is that the partnerships we are creating are going to last long after the grant period,” Bullock said, “and that’s going to be empowering forever for all parties involved.”-30-
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