With general assistance gone, recovering addicts say ‘Now what?’

Pennsylvania’s general assistance program used to provide cash assistance to people who temporarily couldn’t support themselves.

That included, in part, individuals who were disabled, victims of domestic violence or those in drug-treatment programs.

For 98 percent of them, the $200 monthly payment was their only income. The state eliminated general assistance in August, a cut keenly felt in Philadelphia.

 

‘I just didn’t realize it was going to be this hard’

Nicole DeLange sat at a folding conference table in the sunny office of a home for recovering drug addicts in Germantown. Despite the warm and inviting environment of Interim House, DeLange admitted that when she first came, she was really wary.

“Something changed,” she said, her voice breaking. “It always makes me cry. I can’t express how thankful I am for another chance. Because I never got one before. And this is my first time ever in recovery, so everything that I gained I hold onto. It’s hard, but every day is just so worth it.”

DeLange, now an outpatient, spoke just days after her cash assistance had run out. Now, she worries about losing her remaining independence.

“I just didn’t realize it was going to be this hard,” she said.

DeLange is trying to rebuild her relationship with her three children, who live with her parents. They visit on weekends.

“What am I going to do with them because I have no money? Even though we wouldn’t spend a lot of money. But, still, it’s like kids have needs.

“They want to do stuff. They don’t want to be bored. I don’t want to be bored. Boredom is a big trigger for me,” she says.

Reducing state spending

DeLange is one of 35,000 people in Philadelphia who have lost the cash assistance from the state. The spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Public Welfare said she couldn’t address specific cases. But she did offer a perspective on how the decision to cut assistance was made.

The Department of Public Welfare budget is made up of 40 cents of every dollar that state taxpayers put into Harrisburg, Donna Morgan said. And the state comptroller’s office confirmed that general assistance made up about a percent of state spending.

“We had to look at programs and the general assistance cash grant program is state-only funded,” said Morgan. “Most of our budget is controlled by federal mandates, so we had to look at this particular issue.”

In other words, she concluded, federal mandates require a lot of the department’s programs, but the state funds cash assistance on its own. So, it cut where it could.

Morgan said remaining funds will be shifted as much as possible to programs that get people receiving public benefits back to work.

“This is a real tragedy for our ladies here,” said Kathy Wellbank, the program director of Interim House. For her clients, Wellbank contends that finding a job will be more than difficult.

“Most of our women come to us on a third- or fourth-grade reading and math level. They have horrific histories of violence and abuse,” she says. “They’re not really prepared to enter the workforce right now.”

Amy Hirsch, an attorney for Community Legal Services, called ending general assistance shortsighted.

“If only a small proportion of the individuals end up homeless and in shelters, the cost of that is significantly greater than the savings,” Hirsch argued. “This is not going to save us money.”

Hirsch expects that, without the stipend, at least some women will have to leave their transitional housing. Losing that stability puts them at risk for relapse.

‘I love to go to sleep at night’

Another outpatient of Interim House, Jean Polen could pass for a fraction of her age, which is 44. She’s sunny and friendly. But sometimes her confidence wavers. Polen’s just days from the deadline to leave her housing program, whose state funding was cut. Combined with the loss of her only income, the situation has made for some of the most difficult moments since she got clean.

“Waking up in the morning sometimes, knowing that I have to deal with the situation that I’m not ready to deal with,” she says. “I love to go to sleep at night because I’m not suffering any pain.”

Polen said she sometimes thinks about going back to the ways she used to make money on the street, trading sex for cash.

“You ask yourself, ‘Should I?’ and ‘Shouldn’t I?’ And for me I just pray about it and I always come up with I shouldn’t, that my recovery must come first,” she says.

Polen wants to earn her GED. She would like to see herself working as a nurse, and living with her youngest daughter in her own home.

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