The 'human' element in welfare services

Within Allegheny County's $805 million budget for human services, it's the small yet meaningful programs that touch lives

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

"Welfare" isn't a word you hear much anymore.

It's unfashionable. It appears on the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' website exactly once, if you exclude references to state agencies and child services. Even the state Department of Public Welfare wants a new name without the W-word, saying the attached stigma hurts its clients.

With an $805 million annual budget largely fueled by federal and state grants, the county's human services department is as big as it has ever been. It still believes in the mission of providing for residents' welfare, as much as a political punching bag that word has become.

But despite plenty of big-ticket programs, many of its most popular initiatives are much smaller -- a medley of low-cost services that seek to prevent trouble before it starts, to raise residents' standard of living before they sink into sickness or poverty.

Indeed, the greatest challenge facing Marc Cherna as Allegheny County's human services director isn't just getting help to people in need -- it's explaining to taxpayers the kind of help they're giving.

"About a sixth of the population gets some services from us," Mr. Cherna said. "Our philosophy is trying to empower folks and serve them and help them get self-sufficiency. A little bit of help sometimes makes all the difference in the world for some folks."

A visit from a friend to an old man. A set of clothes for a former prisoner. A basket of vegetables for a senior citizen.

As three popular -- and small -- programs show, it doesn't take a lot to drastically change a life.

Nutrition vouchers

Eggplants have been around a while. Like, since before the pyramids.

And until Suzanne Speck brought it along for a cooking demonstration at the Plum Borough Senior Community Center, 87-year-old Fran McCaslin had never tasted one.

It smelled decent, so she swirled around the sauteed cubes in her sample cup and took a bite. "Good," she decided. "Very flavorable with everything else."

In an age where Giant Eagle stocks everything from bell peppers to Belgian endive, it's easy to assume seniors like Ms. McCaslin are following the advice they give their own grandchildren and eating their vegetables.

But as those who work with the elderly know, older folks often pass on produce in favor of opening a can for dinner. Who wants the hassle of chopping up a pepper?

So for more than a decade, Allegheny County has made seniors a simple offer: Here's $20. Go buy something at a farmers' market.

"If you eat right, your balance is better," said Joseph Barker, bureau chief in human services' Area Agency on Aging. "You can digest medicines better. Fresh fruits and vegetables and high quality nutrition really enhances their lives and keeps them functioning."

Through the county's Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, lower-income seniors get four $5 checks to spend at participating farmers' markets during the summer and early fall. The initiative began in 1998 in Delaware County and went statewide in 2002.

Mr. Barker credits the program -- and the work of interns like Ms. Speck, who show seniors how to cook the produce they might buy -- with opening new farmers' markets near senior centers.

Indeed, older shoppers have become a common enough sight that markets have begun selling special $5 baskets featuring a small collection of produce -- two tomatoes, an onion and a pepper, for instance.

Some seniors have turned their trips into a regular social outing. Tulsa Harris, 66, could go to a different market every week if she wanted -- Wilkinsburg, Lawrenceville, North Side. When she misses one, she knows she'll have to explain where she was during her next visit.

For her, the vouchers have opened up new variety in her life, reintroducing her to fresh greens, corn and pears. It's only $20, but the Mount Washington resident calls it a blessing.

"Every little bit counts," she said. "You know, the economy is up so high, it really takes away from how much you can get. But when you don't get real expensive things, maybe just green beans and potatoes and things to make a pot dish, it goes further."

Jail-release help

Layla will use just her first name, because Layla has a history and an ex-boyfriend and plenty of other things an easily Googled last name could bring to her doorstep.

The 34-year-old works in a Pittsburgh pizza shop. She has an infant daughter, a home outside the city.

A year ago, she had none of this. She was off heroin, but still an alcoholic; she was pregnant, but had lost other children to the authorities.

And she was in jail, awaiting trial after assaulting a police officer.

None of this was new, she'll admit -- her Allegheny County criminal record lists two additional arrests, to say nothing of her rap sheet back home in New York -- but her reaction was. For the first time, she said, after years of bouncing between jail, the streets and bouts of depression, Layla asked for help.

"I was out there for so many years," she said, sitting at a table during her break at the restaurant, twisting her hands. "I knew I would just go back to drinking. I didn't have anyone to take care of me, to take any time."

Her call was answered by , a program that helps mentally ill county jail and state prison inmates readjust to life after leaving incarceration. Part social worker, part big sister, Layla's caseworker visited her in jail, picked her up when she was released and rarely left her side afterwards.

Former inmates stay in the program for a few months, unit manager Leigh Richardson said, making doctors appointments, finding housing and taking their medications. But for many, the biggest help comes right after they're released, when they have nothing more than the clothes they wore when they were arrested.

"They could go to jail today, which is a nice day, in shorts and flip-flops," she said. "In December, when they're released and there are 6 inches of snow, they're going to have a problem."

So county staffers take them shopping, using a small stipend included in the program. They'll drive to Kmart or Burlington Coat Factory and give their client, sometimes for the first time in their lives, a chance to buy what they'd like.

For convicts who have been released after decades in prison, the experience can be jarring.

"When they might have gone to jail 20 to 30 years ago, toothpaste may have been a dollar. Now it's $3 to $4," Ms. Richardson said. "Some of our clients get very overwhelmed."

That simple act of shopping -- Layla's first real taste of freedom since she went to jail -- put her at ease, she said. In the following months, she learned to trust her caseworker, building a new life with her help.

Today, with her daughter happy and healthy, Layla laughs a little -- but proudly -- when people tell her what a great mom she is. They should have seen her before, she said.

"This just really changed my life," she said. "I had enough sense to write to them. But how many people don't? How many other lives could it change?"

Senior companions

Every Wednesday, Joan Graves packs up her things, drives three miles through Monroeville's winding back roads and knocks on the Bahledas' front door.

Sometimes it's a good day when she comes calling -- the morning's gone well, no fights or arguments. Other days, not so much.

But Eddie Bahleda, 88 years old and confined to a wheelchair, usually has a smile for Ms. Graves, a 72-year-old retiree who visits every week to keep him company, play cards and watch "The Price Is Right."

"The thing that sticks out with me is just how happy they are to see me when I come," she said. "You don't do this for the money. You do this because you like to do it."

Ms. Graves is a volunteer in the county's Senior Companion program, a federally funded service that pays retirees a stipend of $2.65 an hour to spend time with frail or vulnerable senior citizens, giving older residents both a fresh face to see and a chance for their families to take a break.

About 350 residents a year get visits from the program's 90 or so volunteers, program manager John Miller said. He's gotten rave reviews from both the clients, who often are in their 80s, and the companions, who may have just begun their retirement.

"I've heard many of the companions talk about how this gives them meaning and satisfaction and a reason to get out of bed in the morning, knowing that somebody is counting on them to be there," he said.

The companions aren't home care aides or nurses, though they're allowed to do some cleaning if needed. But they can make lunch, take a resident on a walk -- or play cards, as Ms. Graves prefers.

That's usually off the table for Mr. Bahleda, whose arthritis has turned him into a game show watcher. But Ms. Graves' visits have given his wife, Betsy, and his daughter, Lynn, a chance to break away and go shopping together.

A bit guiltily, Lynn admits she and her mother often let Mr. Bahleda doze off when he wants. When so much of the day is spent caring for him, she said, how else can she find time to get housework done?

Not so with Ms. Graves.

"It means something to him that she talks," Lynn Bahleda said. "She's someone who talks to him and keeps him awake. She laughs, and she gets him to laugh, too."

Justice Related Services

Average yearly cost for clothing stipend: About $83,000

Average number of yearly enrollees: 432

Cost per person: $192

For more information: 412-350-7337

Senior Companion

Total cost: $605,161 (includes stipends, $3.30 meal allowance and travel expenses)

Total people served: About 350

Cost per person: About $1,700 annually

For more information: 412-350-5460

Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program

Annual cost: $482,080 (includes program management costs)

Total people enrolled: 22,929

Cost per person: $21

For more information: 412-350-5460


Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?