State welfare officials say they will keep office open in East Liberty

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HARRISBURG — The state Department of Public Welfare has reversed a decision to close an assistance office in East Liberty next month and will stay at its location at 5947 Penn Ave. through a month-to-month lease, until another nearby office can be found.

The office had been set to close in May, with employees moved to a McKeesport location, prompting an outcry from advocacy groups that said the change would be disruptive to low-income clients who would have difficulty traveling there.

Despite word of the state’s reversal, planned demonstrations still took place Tuesday outside several DPW offices. Instead of decrying the moves, the gatherings celebrated that the office would be staying put, at least for the time being, said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, an anti-hunger group that advocates for food stamp clients.

“Case workers and clients and taxpayers all have the same interest in high-quality service,” he said.

A DPW spokeswoman said the change was never intended to disrupt anyone’s services and the decision to move employees to McKeesport had not been finalized. The department is still looking for other office space in the East End, said spokeswoman Kait Gillis.

The solicitation for bids says the state is seeking 19,132 square feet of office space in a location with available parking, for a 10-year lease. The space would house 132 employees and must be located in an area that includes East End neighborhoods, Lawrenceville, Friendship, Highland Park, plus Wilkinsburg and parts of Penn Hills.

Some services DPW clients need can be handled over the phone or online, but advocacy groups have said understaffing in the county assistance offices means many problems can only be handled with an in-person office visit. All new applicants for cash assistance must also apply in-person.

In Allegheny County, more than 194,000 people are enrolled in Medicaid, about 160,000 receive food stamp benefits and just over 19,000 receive traditional cash assistance welfare, according to the most recent state statistics.

Kate Giammarise: 717-787-4254 or or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. First Published April 1, 2014 11:39 AM

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