● Published by J. Chambless
"A hand up, not a hand out."
Since its beginning more than 20 years ago, that has been the unofficial, working slogan of the Interfaith Housing Assistance Corporation of Chester County. Since 1993, the corporation has been one of the many silent saviors in our community, helping inspire individuals and their families to achieve financial stability. Recently, West Chester & Chadds Ford Life caught up with two of the corporation's leaders to talk about how the corporation touches so many people's lives.
Q: This organization traces its beginning back in 1993. Talk about the need that existed in Chester County that led to the IHACCC founding.
Lacy: A collective group known as the Chester County Council of Churches set up an ad hoc committee to see who was not being served by all of the other services and supports and benefits in the community. They found a part of our local community that was literally falling through the cracks – those working full time at low-income jobs, who did not qualify for welfare, but could not pay the rent to live in our beautiful county. They were knocking on church doors, asking for monetary assistance or help with their rent because they were facing eviction.
The committee then developed the mission of the organization around that population. These are people who don't want to live in Section 8 housing, who want to raise their children to be contributors to the community. They just need what our board calls 'A hand up, not the hand out.'
Q: Gary, you've been on the IHACCC board for about a year and a half. What drew you to become involved?
Liddick: What led me to the organization is that it truly is a hand up and not a hand out, as Joyce said. We require our participants to go through certain types of budget counseling, parenting counseling, etcetera, depending on the situation. It's not just giving money to people who knock on our door. People need to qualify and continue to participate in monthly budget meetings. We're trying to teach people to be self-sufficient.
Q: The IHACCC provides a wide variety of assistance, connections and support to the people it serves. Take me into the specifics of what happens when an individual first reaches out to your organization.
Lacy: You can liken us to an emergency room, where people come to us when they're in a bit of a crisis, where they could be on the verge of being evicted next week or having their electricity being shut off on Friday. They try to put off those crises as long as they can, but realize that they can't hold back any longer. Maybe they can make April rent, but making May rent may be impossible because of various circumstances. We are not the short-term fix to any of their problems, we may be able to connect them with the electric company who can give them an extension on their power, or agencies who can help pay their electric bill.
Our goal is to work with them to make sure that these situations don't continue to occur. We address their immediate crisis, and once we stabilize that, our case managers go into a more educational role, in order to look at a person's overall financial wellness – to give them a peace of mind and the knowledge and connections to places they need.
Q: During the duration of the three-year period an individual is connected to the IHACCC services, he or she not only receives counseling and advice from a case manager, but also can attend workshops. Talk about one particular workshop that you think truly caters to an individual's needs.
Lacy: We've done workshops on predatory lending. People who don't have enough money to purchase a sofa for their family for instance, get into a situation where they rent a sofa. However, the interest rate on that can rise as much as 300 percent, and if they fall behind on payments, they could end up paying $3,000 for a $500 sofa. Instead, one of our services provides used household items for these families. We receive gently used items and take them directly to these individuals and their families.
Q: Because these individuals remain in the program for a three-year period, it's safe to say that you've seen many lives transform over that time. Give me just one example of your many success stories.
Lacy: A young woman – let's call her Bethany – came to us three years ago with two small children and a minimum-wage job. She was also living through a stressful situation with a former domestic partner and had bad experiences with a financial institution. She was literally putting money under the mattress when we met her, and paying the landlord in cash from month to month. We first encouraged her first to open a bank account. Second, we supported her when she said she wanted to go back to school. Now, she's at a community college taking night classes. She puts the kids to bed and opens a laptop that was provided by an Interfaith Housing donor. We encouraged her to get employment that was more stable, offered more pay and was closer to home, so she could spend more time with her children. She's doing well in school, and she now has a more stable job with a better company that is closer to home. Since then, she has referred a friend of hers to us.
Q: For so many people, coming to an organization like yours for assistance can be a very soul-defeating time in a person's life. How does the IHACCC help allay the fears and humiliation that often come when these individuals ask you for help?
Liddick: The answer to that lays with our case management team – three members who all work with the County of Chester's Department of Children, Youth and Families, who have great access to many resources throughout Chester County. They provide a sensitive, professional environment with which the participants can feel comfortable. As these individuals get more comfortable, the case management team at time will become more parental in their approach to helping. As they build confidence and comfort, it allows them to provide counsel in even more meaningful ways. The trust that they build allows them to strengthen that relationship.
A sub-committee of the board meets with the case managers once a month, and they will review each of these individuals on a case-by-case basis – sometimes 30 or 40, depending on the month – in order to determine the progress and continuing needs of each individual.
Q: For any organization like yours to be successful, it takes collaboration with dedicated individuals, services and individuals. Who are some of those collaborations that the IHACCC works with?
Lacy: There are so many groups we work with, throughout all areas of Chester County. Just a few are The Single Mothers Conference, Bridge of Hope Lancaster and Chester Counties, PA Home of the Sparrow in nearby Exton, the Salvation Army, Act in Faith of Greater West Chester, Friends Association, The Chester County Womens' Commission, and of course the West Chester United Methodist Church, who have been our gracious hosts for the past seven years. I'm really just touching the tip of a huge iceberg. There are so many other people and so many other groups, that I'd be here for hours naming all of them.
Q: Yet another collaboration the IHACCC has is with the United Way. Talk about your partnership with them.
Lacy: United Way, being the incredibly strong link between the private sector and the social service sector, sees needs across all income levels in the county, and link social service agencies with the private sector and the government sector. They convene meetings with congressional aides and business leaders in order to introduce them to the many resources available in the county. We learn from each other about our shared resources. Through these connections, now I know that I can send people to get help with their income tax forms. I can send people to a job locator. The United Way provides those links to our fellow agencies, and in turn, these resources turn us into a much larger service provider. It allows us to have a lot of areas of expertise in our pocket.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect in your role here at the IHACCC?
Liddick: From the standpoint of being a board member, one of the challenges the organization faces is the ability to continue to raise the funds necessary to support the program. We are a non-profit organization, and so all of our funds come from foundation grants, individual donations and various fundraisers. One of the things we're constantly doing is getting as much access to those funds as we can throughout the county. The federal funding in recent years has been shrinking, but the need has not been shrinking for these individuals who need our resources.
Lacy: On the demand for services side, that number keeps going up. We get far more phone calls than we did four or five years ago. There are more and more people in Chester County making less money. The area median income is dropping, and at the same time, the fair market rates for rentals are increasing. We now have an economy that is seeing more of a gap, so the need is rising. We turn to the private sector and foundations. We have more fundraisers. We make more friends, and we find more ways to ask people with big hearts to contribute. The big challenge is not just that we're being funded less, but every other service agency in the world is being funded less, so there is more competition for that funding.
Q: What are the most satisfying aspects of your association with the IHACCC?
Liddick: It's hearing about the Bethanys that Joyce mentioned. It's about hearing that one of our participants was able to get a United Sates citizenship recently. It's the ability to see people meeting with their case managers month by month and learning how to budget their money appropriately while aspiring to another, better-paying job. That's why we're in this, to provide the means to continue this mission.
Lacy: We do a follow-up with our participants that we call 'Where are they Now?' We'll check with the young woman who graduated from us a couple of years ago, and find that she is a teacher in her field, not just a worker bee. We find so many people like her who are thriving. They are truly self sufficient and they are truly out there contributing to the community, and they're giving back because they remember the times when they were in need and got what they needed. We're trying hard to teach the next generation to teach their children that, 'If you start now, you will not have to be coming to groups like ours for support in 20 years.' These are the people we look at and say, 'You will survive, and you will teach your children to survive, and you now have a plan that will allow you to make it.'
The Interfaith Housing Assistance Corporation of Chester County is located at 129 South High Street, Suite 209, West Chester, Pa. 19381-3463. For more information, call 610-696-5675, e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.interfaithhousingcc.org
-- Richard L. Gaw