East Liberty welfare office to shut down in May

Clients would have to go to McKeesport during 'temporary relocation'

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HARRISBURG -- An Allegheny County Assistance Office will close in East Liberty, potentially forcing thousands of low-income families from two dozen ZIP codes to travel to McKeesport for services.

The state Department of Public Welfare confirmed the closing Thursday to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette but described it as a temporary relocation that they hoped would have minimum disruptive impact.

"We are going to be back in that region as soon as possible," said Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the department. The agency is seeking other space in the area, she said.

The office is one of several county assistance offices in the area -- other locations are Downtown, McKeesport and New Kensington in Westmoreland County. The East Liberty office at 5947 Penn Ave., known as the Greater Pittsburgh East District Office, will close in early May.

Ms. Gillis emphasized that many DPW services can be accessed over the phone or online, such as an application for food stamp benefits.

New applicants for welfare cash assistance must visit the office for an in-person interview.

"People do come in to the office for other reasons, if they are applying for food stamps or medical benefits. We have [clients] who don't have a computer," said Rachel Gall, a caseworker and chairwoman of a committee of welfare workers for the Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents employees at the office.

Ms. Gall said the proximity of the office to other social service agencies, such as the East End Cooperative Ministry's Emergency Men's Shelter, the Center for Victims of Domestic Violence and churches, is convenient.

Furthermore, advocacy groups have long complained of chronic under-staffing at county assistance offices leading to problems with phones not being answered, full voice mail boxes and paperwork not being received by caseworkers.

"The disruption and loss of benefits these customer service issues cause is systemic. Now on top of all that, DPW is closing one of the busiest offices in Allegheny County. An estimated 20,000 residents from two dozen neighborhoods will now have to go to even greater lengths to get the help they need. Where is the concern for the clients?" said Rochelle Jackson, public policy advocate for Just Harvest, in a statement about the closing.

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

The state and the building's property manager couldn't come to an agreement about the space because the state wanted to rent a smaller portion of the building, both parties said.

"We needed to find new space," Ms. Gillis said.

"I think that there are economic considerations driving this decision," said Eric Greve, property manager for Charles J. Greve & Co., who manages the building.

"We're sorry to see them leave," he said.

Mr. Greve said the DPW only wanted to rent a portion of the first floor, which was not feasible.

The state is paying $40,000 per month for the space it occupied on three floors.

While the closing will not result in any job losses for employees, the union representing workers opposes the move, said Christopher Hundley, a spokesman for the SEIU Local 668. Employees will be relocated to McKeesport.

"It's not in the best interests of our clients," he said. Making people go to an office that is not centrally located is "an undue hardship for families that are already struggling," he said.

Just Harvest called for a protest rally Tuesday.

Employees were notified of the closing last week. Among clients coming and going at the East Liberty office Thursday afternoon, many did not know it was closing and everyone said a McKeesport location would be troublesome.

"It would be less convenient," said Jevonne Scott of Homewood. "I do drive, but it would still be out of my way."

Another woman said she hoped her case could be transferred to the Downtown location.

"This is a hassle for me, but McKeesport would be a bigger hassle," Lisa Ebner of Swissvale said.

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or Twitter @KateGiammarise. Lexi Belculfine contributed.

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