‘People can’t afford to bathe themselves’: What life is like for Pennsylvanians who lost cash assistance

Members of the Poor People's Campaign called on lawmakers to increase the state's General Assistance benefit at a rally in the state Capitol on Tuesday.

Dalia is working toward some big goals, including securing a place to live.

That got harder on Aug. 1, when General Assistance ended for a second time.

Dalia is a former beneficiary of the state-run program, which provided a $205-a-month stipend to more than 12,000 people with disabilities, in treatment for addiction, and fleeing domestic violence. This summer, the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to eliminate it as part of a budget bill signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Currently, Dalia’s waiting for a Social Security disability determination. But without any income, she can’t get a lease or enroll in most rental assistance programs.

Right now, she’s a resident of Project HOME, a homeless services and anti-poverty organization in Philadelphia. The Capital-Star is withholding her last name to protect her privacy.

August wasn’t the first time Pennsylvania ended General Assistance. It was first eliminated in 2012 by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and the GOP-controlled Legislature, then restored in 2018 after the state Supreme Court ruled the original bill was improperly passed.

During the 2019 debate, Republicans asked why Democrats hadn’t introduced a bill to bring back the program, if it was so crucial. People who lost General Assistance told the Capital-Star they squeaked by with the help of friends and churches, while advocates said many more disappeared further into the margins.

The question now: Will that dynamic play out again?

In the lead-up to General Assistance’s elimination in August, the state Department of Human Services promoted via social media the state’s 211 helpline. The number, which connects people to health and human services assistance, was also included on letters recipients received about the end of the program.

“Since the General Assembly passed a budget eliminating General Assistance in June, the Department of Human Services has worked closely with our partners throughout the commonwealth to ensure that accurate and helpful information is reaching recipients of General Assistance,” department spokesperson Erin James said via email. “One key resource in this effort is 211. To the best of our ability, we are connecting people with available resources and making the nonprofit community aware of the potential for increased need.”

Between mid-July and early September, the state hotline fielded 145 calls, texts, and other contacts from people who self-identified as former recipients, Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, told the Capital-Star. Last year, the United Way-run helpline received about 200,000 contacts per month.

“We’re not asking everyone who calls,” Rotz said.

The top requests from former recipients were for utility assistance, rent payment assistance, and personal grooming and supplies.

“We had expected going into this that those would be common needs,” Rotz said, citing anecdotal evidence from recipients and advocates. “We worked with DHS to be very clear in the communication strategy that there are not community-based organizations that provide cash.”

Dalia said she used her General Assistance payments to pay for transportation, soap, laundry detergent, and pads. She’s now relying on Project HOME to fill in some of those gaps.

But as Rotz noted, resources are limited and some assistance, like help with rental payments, isn’t available in all 67 counties.

A lawsuit and legislation

That need for cash was stressed by proponents of General Assistance during the elimination debate. But it was also used by Republican opponents as a reason to get rid of the program.

“If you’re essentially handing out $200 a month that can be spent on anything, we don’t know what it’s being spent on,” Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, said in June.

A vote on Dunbar’s bill in the state Senate erupted into all-out chaos after Lt. Gov. John Fetterman violated chamber rules by allowing Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, to read a story from a General Assistance recipient.

The bill ultimately passed the House 106-95 and the Senate 26-24, with six Republicans in both chambers voting no and one Democrat in the House voting yes.

Wolf said he favored keeping General Assistance, but signed the bill after it was amended to reauthorize and expand a key Philadelphia hospital assessment that delivers millions of dollars in revenue.

In July, the Philadelphia-based firm Community Legal Services and Disability Rights Pennsylvania sued the state to restore the program. Their request for a preliminary injunction was rejected by Commonwealth Court.

In the first go-round, it took five years for Community Legal Services’ original lawsuit to be resolved by the state Supreme Court. A group of activists don’t want to wait that long again.

On Aug. 21, members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, many wearing “Poor People’s Army” T-shirts, staged a sit-in at a public library in downtown Philadelphia.

“People can’t afford to bathe themselves, buy trash bags, take public transportation, do any of these basic things,” Cheri Honkala, a North Philly activist who founded the campaign, told the Capital-Star.

Honkala and the group have been holding meetings to discuss the end of General Assistance since August. Inspired by “The Public,” a film about a group of homeless people who occupy a library during a brutally cold night, a few dozen people gathered in the Parkway Central Library in Philadelphia and said they would not leave until the program was brought back.

Instead, Honkala said they received citations from police for refusing to leave.

“We’re all pleading not guilty … and planning to shake things up,” she said.

“Sometimes you’ve got to be like the ambulance drivers and go through the red light in an emergency,” Honkala added, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. “Well, that’s what’s happening now.”

In the House, Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, and Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester, are advancing a bill to create a new cash assistance program to serve the same populations. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Muth.

“We did a lot of work of educating people about the fact that this program could be cut,” Kenyatta said, noting that his office held a town hall with Project HOME. “At least in my district, I feel like people were educated. So it wasn’t a shock, even if it is still a problem.”

Kenyatta said the No. 1 need he’s heard in his office is for transportation assistance. Having grown up poor himself, the freshman lawmaker said he doesn’t understand where the constituency is “for cutting veterans and domestic abuse survivors off from getting $150 to $200 a month.”

“But what is the constituency saying? Yes, please take away this minuscule amount of money,” he said.

Kenyatta said he’s had conversations with Republicans who are open to a replacement program. His goal is to bring their support — and the needed votes — to the bargaining table with House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

“I know that that’s a heavy lift. I know that, frankly, that’s going to be difficult to achieve,” he said. “[But] people have to go home to their voters in a couple of months and answer the question, what did you do for the least of these?”

Dalia said she appreciates the lawmakers who are “still fighting for us.”

“The $200 a month, it works. It helps a lot,” she said. “It does change people’s lives.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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