OUT OF ALL of Opal Gibson’s problems, losing $205 per month — the General Assistance payments she had received from the state until this August — is not the biggest. Gibson, 59, lost her job drawing blood at Einstein Hospital in 2010, soon after her son died falling from a three-story building while intoxicated; she lives with hepatitis C she thinks she contracted on the job; and she is recovering from drug addiction. But the end of General Assistance, consigned to oblivion by Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican legislature this year, has made her problems much worse.
“First, I lost my job at Einstein,” said Gibson, after pausing to say grace over an all-you-can-eat lunch at Old Country Buffet, tucked into a parking lot among Roosevelt Boulevard’s strip malls. “The stress was tremendous. I had just buried my son. Then I got depressed and I started drinking, drugging. Couldn’t pay my rent anymore — [you] know where my money went.”
“After about three months, I was, like, ‘You know what? This isn’t for me. This is a loser way out.’ So I went and sought help.” Gibson, who has been clean and looking for work ever since, turned to cash welfare after 18 months of unemployment benefits ran dry. But thanks to Act 80, that small safety net has disappeared for her — and for 68,000 other Pennsylvanians who are disabled, victims of domestic violence or recovering addicts, or who are caring for other people’s children. Corbett is known for his friendliness to big business and his cuts targeting the least advantaged, including nearly $1 billion cut from public-school funding and major reductions to community services for the disabled and poor. No program, however, had less influential supporters than General Assistance, which helped the state’s most marginalized.
As the cuts were finalized, advocates warned the impact could be disastrous. Now, their predictions are beginning to play out: Organizations aiding the homeless are coping with an increased demand for services, the city’s fragile network of drug recovery houses are struggling to keep addicts off the street, and people like Gibson, already living on the edge, feel themselves being pushed over the brink. One woman told City Paper that she might return to prostitution for lack of other resources.
Today, Gibson is one of three petitioners challenging the cut in a lawsuit filed by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS), the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and a half-dozen service groups. Advocates are contesting the entirety of Act 80, which also tightens work requirements for mothers on welfare and pilots a policy of rolling seven line-item social-service funds into single block grants to counties. Providers worry they will be pitted against one another in a fight for funding — especially since the block grants were initiated as part of a 10-percent overall cut.
People kicked off General Assistance, 92 percent of whom were disabled, now have trouble finding money for rent, Medicaid drug prescription co-pays, transportation to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, doing laundry and buying toiletries, says CLS attorney Michael Froehlich. And winter isn’t even here yet. “I suspect the real harm we’ll see in Philadelphia is when it starts getting cold.”
THE CORBETT ADMINISTRATION, which has blocked efforts to raise taxes on natural-gas drillers, cited the state’s fiscal crisis in slashing programs. “The department had some very difficult decisions to make during the last budget negotiations,” says Department of Public Welfare spokesperson Carey Miller. The department focused cuts on state-funded services because rules block changes to federally funded programs like Medicaid and food stamps. “Welfare continues to grow at an unsustainable rate.”
Philadelphia’s poor, however, contend that it is their lives that have become unsustainable.
Stephan Chambers, a recovering drug addict at the Joy of Living recovery house in Frankford, is committed to piecing his life back together. But Chambers, who held down good jobs at UPS and Family Dollar before he fell into drugs and crime, has been unable to find a job. His record makes things worse. He thinks legislators “feel as though a lot of people is sitting around doing nothing. But I don’t think that’s true. … The unemployment rate is horrible.”
For many, the program’s elimination came without warning.
“I just didn’t get a check one day. That was it,” says Gibson. “Now, I don’t know how I’m making it except for the grace of God.”
She is waiting to be approved for Social Security Disability Insurance, which she applied for in July. General Assistance in the past often provided a bridge for people stymied by a backlog in federal disability hearings; the state covered applicants in the interim, and if they were ultimately approved, the state was reimbursed. Gibson continues a search for work and makes a little money caring for a friend’s dying father. She stays at another friend’s home. “Otherwise I’d be homeless right now. I’d be in the street, I’d be in a shelter again. And that would jeopardize my recovery. Not that I would go back out and use, but how much can one person take?”
That’s a common refrain across the city’s often unregulated recovery houses, amongst the hardest hit by this cut.
Joy of Living is, for now, allowing addicts to stay for free. “I’m just carrying a lot of people,” says owner Stephanie Scully. It’s unclear if she will be able to do so indefinitely. “What they don’t realize is if most of these guys hit the street again, they’re going to go back to doing exactly what they used do: rob, steal, cheat,” says Chambers. “Places like this help the crime rate stay down.”
Those places might also have saved the state and city, which provide few services for addicts, a bundle of money. Pennsylvania spends an average of $42,339 per year on an inmate, versus $1,845 on General Assistance (plus a maximum $1,800 over the nine months in food stamps, and undefined costs related to medical insurance).
The nearby Next Step recovery house had about 25 residents when City Paper visited in March. Addicts spent a month focused on recovery, restricted to the house, Narcotics Anonymous meetings and medical facilities. Now clients must get jobs and pay rent immediately. “We only have like eight clients for two months,” says owner Anthony Grasso. “Welfare killed us. A lot hung around for a month or whatever, but falling behind on their rent and not able to get a job, they left.” The destination is often, he says, drug corners and jail: “It’s so easy for them to go down and get a free sample from somebody and start it up. I had a lot of people go to jail for retail theft. Because they’re out boosting to get high.”
THE LAWSUIT TO overturn Act 80 alleges that the legislature illegally rolled disparate measures into a single law, violating provisions of the state constitution requiring that legislation deal with only one particular issue, not change the bill’s original purpose after being introduced, and be debated on three separate days. Act 80 began as a simple bill intended to close a bureaucratic loophole (to “determine … [benefits] eligibility based upon the … applicant’s place of residence”). After being debated, however, it was on June 29 gutted and turned into a wholesale dismantling of state welfare programs. It passed out of both the House and Senate by June 30. The original loophole-closing measure, bizarrely, had already been passed through a separate piece of legislation. “Mr. Speaker, I do not know how you can vote for something that you do not know what is in it,” state Rep. Mike Sturla (D- Lancaster) complained on the House floor.
On June 30, Corbett signed the bill 15 minutes before the state’s fiscal year drew to a close at midnight.
Lawmakers have often gotten away with such legislative tricks in the past. The controversial 2004 state gaming bill, for example, started out as a one-page bill that had to do with state police conducting background checks for horse-racing track workers and ended up legalizing casino gambling in the state — via a 145-page amendment. But the courts have also ruled against such machinations, declaring that a bill dealing with the general topic of “municipalities,” for example, was too broad to be considered a single subject.
But the fate of the Act 80 lawsuit isn’t clear. “I would still think it was a hard argument to win because the courts have interpreted single subjects so broadly,” warns Duquesne University Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz. But, he argues, “If we really cared about what the constitution says, [the petitioners] would clearly win.”
It’s not merely a technical question: The constitutional rules are intended to ensure that legislators and the public are able to carefully evaluate proposals, and that important bills are not pushed through behind closed doors. There were no hearings on eliminating General Assistance, and recipients and advocates had little opportunity to make their case. “If the legislature had the opportunity to evaluate the General Assistance program on its own merits, and there was an up-or-down vote … they would not have eliminated General Assistance,” says CLS’s Froehlich.
Commonwealth Court Judge Keith B. Quigley denied the petitioners’ request for an injunction blocking implementation of the law; they’ve appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit continues — as does the suffering.
Project H.O.M.E. has seen an influx of people requiring shelter, food and services. “Since the GA cuts, walk-ins have increased,” says Outreach Coordination Center director Carol Thomas. “People have lost their rooms. Before, people would be able to rent a single room, and they would do that with their GA funds.” Clients are also asking for services H.O.M.E. generally did not previously provide: “showers, toiletries, laundry services and tokens. … They don’t have the income.” And the number of young people in their 20s on the street, she says, is growing. “Nothing can replace cash. And I think that’s what people don’t realize.”
Carel Floyd, 42, who suffers from the autoimmune disorder Graves’ disease, is now staring that reality in the face. He lost both general and medical assistance (though advocates tell CP he is still entitled to it). Act 80 restricted medical-assistance eligibility for some chronically ill people; new policies also included more complicated applications for medical aid. The state, according to an analysis by Democratic legislators, projects that 35,000 people will lose health coverage, a $170.3 million cut. Two-thirds of the cuts would represent people formerly eligible for General Assistance (who were not supposed to have medical assistance restricted) — perhaps through mere confusion.
Floyd, a recovering addict with years of job experience, is now in his third semester at Community College of Philadelphia. He wants to find work where he can help homeless people with mental disorders and addiction. But he’s having trouble affording daily life: SEPTA tokens, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry — all the little things that $205 a month just barely covered. People don’t seem to recognize, he says, how a person can sink under life’s smallest expenses. People think, he says, that welfare recipients “don’t need the money, they have food stamps. Well, food stamps just covers food.”