What happens when you reinstate an anti-poverty program and no one knows about it?

People lined up in a quiet queue in the courtyard of St. Francis Inn Ministries in Kensington, awaiting breakfast. (courtesy: Alfred Lubrano/philly.com)

People lined up in a quiet queue in the courtyard of St. Francis Inn Ministries in Kensington, awaiting breakfast. (courtesy: Alfred Lubrano/philly.com)

This story originally appeared on philly.com.

Hungry people, experts will tell you, are always silent.

On Tuesday, they lined up in a quiet queue in the courtyard of St. Francis Inn Ministries in Kensington, awaiting breakfast under a sapping morning sun.

Many of them were sharp and savvy from living on the street, but they nevertheless were unaware of some rare good news for people in poverty:

General Assistance, a program that helps Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable residents with a small monthly grant of around $200, is being reinstated this fall, six years after it was cut.

Because the money has been gone so long, the very people it was meant to help were surprised to learn that some relief might soon be available.

“I did not know,” said Bernard Dawkins, 68, of Frankford, who said his life of drugs, alcohol, and violence made him homeless until various agencies took him in. Rehabilitated, Dawkins, a former Sharon Hill bulldozer operator, said the state needn’t send him any money.

“I’d appreciate the cash, but I have all the help I need. I burned my house down,” he said, speaking metaphorically. “But I have respect for life now, and I feel blessed. Give my share to somebody else.”

Advocates say it isn’t surprising that people are in the dark about a revised program to help the poor, especially during a time when Congress and President Trump talk about cutting food stamps and other benefits.

General Assistance was eliminated by the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012. Statewide, around 68,000 people received the benefit, 35,000 of them living in Philadelphia.

Administration officials said the cut was needed to save money. Advocates countered that because the state was getting back just $150 million out of a then-$28 billion budget, the jettisoning of General Assistance was more likely based on bias against those in poverty.

“People like to believe need doesn’t exist, and that people are playing the system all the time, which is inaccurate,” said Ann Sanders, a public policy advocate at Just Harvest, an anti-hunger organization in Pittsburgh.

Several people and entities sued the state in 2012. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia argued the case, saying the legislation that cut General Assistance was rushed into law, violating the state constitution, which requires a more deliberative process.

In June, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with CLS in a 7-0 decision. The state will restore General Assistance as a result, possibly by the end of September.

General Assistance was designed for those who are not eligible for most other programs — “the most vulnerable people of the commonwealth,” according to CLS attorney Michael Froehlich, one of the lawyers who brought the case.

General Assistance aids disabled or sick adults without children, survivors of domestic violence without minor children, adults caring for the sick or disabled, adults participating in alcohol and other drug treatment programs, and children living with an unrelated adult.

Many people on General Assistance were awaiting approval of SSI or Social Security disability payments. If people were approved, the state would be reimbursed for paying out General Assistance.

For many people, such as those in treatment programs, the payments don’t exceed nine months in a lifetime.

Cutting General Assistance was “morally reprehensible,” said Jeannine Lisitski, executive director and president of Women Against Abuse, an organization that advocates against domestic violence and that houses women fleeing abusive partners.

“We took General Assistance away from the poorest of the poor,” she said. “It’s going to be great to get it back.”

Liz Hersh, director of the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services, said that even though the money is meager, it helps people pay friends or relatives to rent a bed or couch in an apartment, keeping them off the streets. She said that ending it had been “cruel.”

When General Assistance was eliminated, the results were quickly evident, said Mike Dahl, executive director of Broad Street Ministry in Center City, which helps people in poverty and those experiencing homelessness.

“It felt like a war on the poor,” he said. “When GA was cut, the number of people seeking assistance went up. We ended up being the safety net below the safety net.

“When government pokes holes in that net, we get busier.”

In some cases, the end of General Assistance meant increased costs to state and local governments in services for the homeless and incarcerated, wrote Diana Polson, a policy analyst at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think tank in Harrisburg.

As welcome as the return of General Assistance is, “It’s surprising how no one is asking me about it,” said Karen Pushaw, a longtime employee at St. Francis Inn. “I might put out some fliers.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, which will administer General Assistance, said information about the program is available on the agency’s website, and at county assistance offices throughout the state.

The help can’t come soon enough for some people.

“I wasn’t aware of General Assistance,” said Craig Jones, 62, an injured construction worker on a limited income who was awaiting breakfast at St. Francis Inn on Tuesday. “But I could use the help. It could be my last resort.”

WHYY is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at https://brokeinphilly.org.

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