Philly demonstration protests end of General Assistance

Outside Gov. Corbett's Philadelphia office, Yvonne Meredith leads a group protesting the end of General Assistance. The aid payments to the needy end Wednesday.
Outside Gov. Corbett's Philadelphia office, Yvonne Meredith leads a group protesting the end of General Assistance. The aid payments to the needy end Wednesday. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 02, 2012

In Nicetown, Marie White is wondering how she will continue to feed a 10-year-old neighbor for whom she has become a surrogate mother.

In North Philadelphia, Linda Oliver does not know how she will pay her gas and water bills.

And at Recovery King in Germantown, employees are asking if they will have to turn away recovering addicts.

Those worries have festered for months, since Gov. Corbett announced the end of General Assistance (G.A.), a program that helps 70,000 of Pennsylvania's poorest and sickest residents. Payments stop Wednesday.

"We're seeing absolute panic right now about how people are going to maintain their housing primarily, get to doctor's appointments, and pay co-pays for medicines," said Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project.

About 200 people rallied Tuesday against the cuts outside Corbett's Philadelphia office on South Broad Street. About half of former G.A. recipients live in the City of Brotherly Love.

"I've got no income at all right now," said Oliver, one of the protesters. She said she cannot work because drugs she takes for hepatitis C leave her exhausted. She also has HIV.

Oliver was using some of her G.A. money to pay rent to a friend, who has told Oliver she must move if she cannot contribute financially.

Most recipients are adults who are temporarily disabled. Others include victims of domestic violence, addicts in recovery programs, and people taking care of a child who is not a relative.

Corbett has said he must get rid of G.A., which pays $205 a month, to save $150 million annually.

Poor people and their advocates say Corbett could have continued to pay for the program but chose to cut corporate taxes. They argue that the decision will only drive up costs for other state agencies and private organizations as more people become homeless or fail to get treatment for addiction, turn to crime, and end up in jail.

Kelli Roberts, a Corbett spokeswoman, said the state budget was not sustainable without the cut. The administration is trying to identify other programs that former G.A. recipients can use, including those that subsidize utility bills or job training.

"We are trying to make sure they receive what they are eligible for in other areas," Roberts said.

At Tuesday's rally, people chanted "Shame! Shame!" as they listened to recipients tell their stories.

Maurice Forrest runs Recovery King, which houses up to 75 recovering alcoholics. He said he was not yet certain how his organization will make up for the lost revenue, which accounts for about half of Recovery King's $100,000 yearly budget through clients' rent and utility payments.

"We'll probably have to treat fewer people," he said.

Debbie F. Plotnick, director of advocacy for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said G.A. is a stepping-stone that helps people recover from addiction and a wide range of mental-health problems. Many use the money for co-pays on psychiatric medications, she added.

They also use it to pay a small amount of rent in transitional subsidized housing. "It's the thing that gets you over the hump," she said. "Pulling General Assistance is kicking them right into the gutter."

Many people who received G.A. eventually qualify for Social Security disability, Plotnick said. The federal government then reimburses the state for G.A. payments that helped people in the interim.

"This is essentially a loan program," she said.

Marie White, 61, did not attend the protest. She receives $791 through Social Security because diabetes and hypertension leave her unable to work.

She also had been getting $205 monthly because she has been the primary caretaker for a 10-year-old boy since he was an infant. White started out as his babysitter, but the mother gradually began disappearing from his life.

His mother is still involved, but only marginally. White qualified for G.A. as a "Good Samaritan" - an adult who agrees to care for a child who is not a relative. The funds helped pay for the child's food and clothing, White said, but the $205 no longer even covered a month of food for the boy.


Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520, hillmb@phillynews.com or @miriamhill on Twitter.

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