Protesters Invade North Philly Welfare Office

photo(64)Members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign descended upon the Philadelphia Assistance Office at 2701 Broad Street this afternoon, alongside members of Occupy Philly and local unions. Their mission was to bring awareness to the harsh conditions at local welfare offices on behalf of both the caseworkers and clients. And for all intents and purposes, they succeeded.

A PPEHRC email sent out last night they’d be demonstrating against 150,000 Pennsylvanians—including 43,000 children—being cut off Medicaid; caseworker layoffs; the closing of EARN (Employment Advancement Retention Network) centers which help welfare recipients find employment; and cutting residents off unemployment without creating replacement jobs.

“We’ll go in and go upstairs,” said PPEHRC founder Cheri Honkala on the sidewalk a little after noon. “They’ll ultimately chase us out but I’m going to try to say a few things.”

As they headed inside, an Occupy Philly member told me this is what that group should have been doing all along. “Kids blocking Eighth Street and getting arrested,” he said, wasn’t helping anyone.

Two of the 12 members I counted in attendance—Socialist Workers Party member Joe Piette and photographer Harvey Finkle—were stopped in the vestibule by a security guard. They had cameras around their necks, and therefore weren’t allowed in. The rest of the group got on two separate elevators which took them up to the second floor.

Upstairs, it was packed. I was told to put my phone away by a security guard, who caught me taking a photo. Honkala handed out homemade signs to her group and began addressing the clients in attendance.

“Unemployment has been cut,” she screamed as all heads turned. “They cut 150 thousand people off medical and I want you all to know you have a right to be treated with dignity. Both the caseworkers and all of you.”

The security guards were not pleased with this, though they did little to stop the group.

The protesters walked to the far end of the room and everyone watched. Some took out there phones and shot video. “I don’t know what the fuck this is,” I overheard one woman say into her phone with her hand cupped over her mouth. “They’re protesting or something.”

A man in a purple shirt came out from a back office and confronted Honkala. He was extremely close to her and spoke so low, it was almost inaudible.

“I received a promise that these conditions would change and they haven’t changed,” she said back to him. “They’ve gotten worse. This is a health and safety issue. Let’s go sit in a room for a couple minutes so we can talk about our concerns.”

According to the Philadelphia government’s own website, the Jefferson, Kent and Lehigh welfare districts are all housed on the second floor of this one building. Honkala claimed she spoke with the district administrator last December, who told her the conditions inside the office would change. As she told PW yesterday, the group was there to stop a potential homicide at a welfare office, too, similar to what happened in Texas earlier this month.

The man, who said he was the assistant district administrator, claimed his boss wasn’t there and that there was no one they could talk to—but they should call the center’s press agent and figure things out that way.

One man stood up and said, “Chris Angel is to blame!” As the group began walking away, this man would get into a fistfight with another client, waiting to see a caseworker. There were a few hollers, but it was broken up shortly afterwards.

“We have to fight against the folks responsible for getting rid of caseworkers and putting four districts in one welfare office,” Honkala said, standing on a chair before leaving. “When we come back on the 28th we will see the caseworkers and we will get better conditions for all of us.” Several in the office clapped. Though others didn’t seem to understand what was going on or why the protesters were even there.

Outside, the group picketed and handed out fliers, calling for no privatization of welfare benefits and better conditions.

Ray Martinez, an organizer with SEIU Local 668 got on a bullhorn on the street. “The conditions [inside are] a disgrace,” he said. “It’s standing room only. There are kids running all over the place. There’s no one who is happy to be here. It’s not a happy place. We’re short staffed, we need more income maintenance caseworkers…This all ties in with what we’ve been talking about: the 99 percent and the rich getting all the tax breaks and spending money the way they want to. Even poor people who have to go to a welfare office, they deserve respect.”

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