Utility fund offers multipronged help for those in poverty

Michael Baxter of Logan found a need for the fund's help when he suddenly lost his job.
Michael Baxter of Logan found a need for the fund's help when he suddenly lost his job. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 23, 2013

Poverty isn't just one thing.

It's hunger, and it's falling behind on the rent, and it's the inability to pay the electric bill, among 100 other difficulties.

Poverty fighters are realizing that the entangled nature of poverty - think of hopelessly entwined plant roots underground - makes it hard to attack just one problem without addressing the others.

This holistic approach helps the 30-year-old Utility Emergency Services Fund run, with financial backing from federal block-grant money distributed by the city, along with funding from sources such as United Way and the Philadelphia Foundation. UESF's budget is $3.6 million annually.

"We're breaking down silos," said executive director John Rowe - that is, moving away from thinking of poverty's distresses as discrete worries unlinked to each other.

Over the last five years, UESF has morphed from an organization that addresses primarily utility cutoffs to one that looks at how one hardship leads to another. UESF's 15 staff members serve as many as 4,000 families a year in Philadelphia.

"We're showing connections among utilities, rental assistance, TANF [cash welfare], and homelessness," Rowe said.

It may sound logical, but UESF's argument that inability to pay the electric bill could lead a family to homelessness is novel thinking.

What Rowe and his colleagues strive for is stability: Corral the hardships; keep the family away from the shoals.

"UESF walked me through so many problems," said Michael Baxter, 52, of Logan, a formerly homeless man who received utility and housing help from UESF. "They steered me in the right direction."

In its core mission, UESF helps people with their utility bills after they have exhausted assistance from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

If a family falls behind and owes Peco $1,500, for example, UESF will put up $750 and Peco will match it.

Utilities work with UESF because people make better customers when they're stable, Rowe said.

Nowadays, UESF will help with the Peco bill, then delve further into family problems.

It will offer counseling on budgeting, taxes, financial literacy, and tenants' rights, among other issues. Most important, UESF helps people find housing and make the initial rent and security payments.

"In the hierarchy of needs," Rowe said, "housing is first."

Baxter understands that all too well.

Not long ago, he was a 13-year employee at a local HMO, in charge of the dissemination of in-house newsletters and manuals.

Then, the company downsized and Baxter, a veteran and divorced father of three adult children, was out of work. He was unable to pay an electric bill of more than $800. There wasn't enough food to eat. Soon enough, he lost his $949-a-month apartment and found himself homeless, living in a shelter.

Renee Kellam, Baxter's UESF case manager, attested that Baxter was neither mentally ill nor a substance abuser. "He's an intelligent, achieving man who just needed assistance," Kellam said.

In the Spring Garden shelter, where he lived for more than a year, the motivated Baxter earned three associate degrees, in humanities, behavioral science, and liberal arts, at Community College of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, UESF staffers worked on getting him out of the shelter.

A person who owes money to a utility can't set up an account in a new residence until the bill has been settled. UESF paid the outstanding electric bill.

Baxter found a new place to live, but because he'd been evicted, the new landlord required a lot more up-front money: a security deposit, plus four months' advance rent - around $3,000 in all.

Understanding how all of Baxter's problems were linked, UESF staffers paid the money, and Baxter moved. He got a job as a city sanitation worker and is close to finishing a bachelor's degree in human services and psychology from Chestnut Hill College.

"The whole UESF staff was very, very gracious," Baxter said. "I never felt like a second-class citizen, and they were so happy to find me assistance."

That's an agencywide attitude, said program specialist Lynette Jordan. "We recognize that everybody has a story, and we're not judgmental," she said. "We actually care about people's well-being, and we will follow up to see how they're doing. We don't just throw money at people."

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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