Friend of the Community Award

The Social Action Committee of Beth Israel presented the Community Action Agency of Delaware County on Friday, May 4 with its 2018 “Friend of the Community Award.”  The award notes the agency’s key role in reducing poverty, offering assistance in housing, employment, and social services.  As part of its commitment to “Tikkun Olam,” the Hebrew phrase meaning “Healing the World,” the Social Action Committee of presented the award at a ceremony following Shabbat services, presided over by Rabbi Linda Potemken.
The Community Action Agency of Delaware County, Inc. (CAADC) has been serving economically disadvantaged residents of Delaware County for nearly 40 years.  Delaware County Council established CAADC in 1979 to fight the “renewed war on poverty” and designated it the County’s Anti-Poverty Agency.  CAADC is a private, non-profit corporation, managed by a 21-member Board of Directors that equally represent the public, private, and client sectors.  CAADC was initially funded with only a $50,000 planning grant. It started with just one employee, its first and current Chief Executive Officer, Edward T. Coleman.  Now, over one hundred staff members work together to assist residents to move toward economic self-sufficiency. The agency strengthens the community through innovative approaches to programs including housing, workforce development, energy conservation, social services, and community and economic development. 

Mr. Coleman sat to discuss the history and current concerns of the agency.

Q: You founded, and were the first employee of the Community Action Agency of Delaware County, almost 40 years ago. What has changed? What has stayed the same?

Ed Coleman: “A lot of what has stayed the same are the things that families need. We see people in poverty, we see people trying to buy their first house, we see children in child care, we see senior citizens, we see people in job training; not everyone who comes to us are in poverty.   But, people who come to us have some specific need, they have a goal, they are trying to move themselves forward. Many people leave with a high school diploma but don’t have the family management skills they require, especially if they are on a fixed income, because one little glitch and people find themselves in an emergency situation. That’s something that has stayed the same.

" little glitch and people find themselves in an emergency situation." 

What has changed is the way we are funded. When we first started the organization, the Federal government had something called the community service administration, they decided what type of programs they wanted to implement around the country. “Here’s money for a transportation program, if you want it…here’s money for housing, if you want that money, apply for it.”   Then, it went to the block grant process, and now we locally design programs to meet the community’s needs. We sit down with our staff, with the board of directors, with the community, and take a look at how those needs have changed, and what’s happened. For example, right now, there’s a possibility that we may get some money for the opioid crisis. One of the first tasks is to look at who’s doing what, what are the gaps that can be filled with a little money, and then try to determine our role in helping our community respond. 

"...about 40% of our revenue comes from fee-generating projects..."

We have evolved over the years, and I think one of the strengths that enabled us to do that is to have significant economic development activity going on; about 40% of our revenue comes from fee-generating projects, like our private construction company that does residential and commercial construction, we do work for the utility companies where they pay us to provide energy retrofits, we have a couple of hundred rental properties that generate revenue back to the non-profit. We have the sale of houses; we find a bad house in a good neighborhood, do the rehabilitation, and sell the house, so we have revenue coming in.  I think that has given us the ability to be able to adapt and change when we have to design something to meet the needs of the community. Despite all of our fundraising efforts we are still operating with deficits at the shelters. There is a misconception that people have that there is somebody who directly funds all shelters, like the federal government, or state government, but there isn’t. There are millions of dollars available for shelter services but there is no guarantee a local community will receive that funding or a requirement about how that funding is spent.  Plus it is never enough to fully fund the shelters.  Each community needs to pull together resources to be able to have shelter housing.”

Q: The Community Action Agencies were created to provide “innovative approaches to eliminating the causes of poverty.” Obviously, poverty is still with us. Has the nature of American poverty changed over the years?

Ed Coleman: “It has, and it hasn’t. I have seen cities and states say their goal is to eliminate homelessness, well, homelessness has been around forever and it probably will be, for a lot of societal issues, drugs and alcohol, whatever the problems are; the nature of homelessness has changed somewhat, and poverty has changed somewhat because of the deterioration of families. It used to be that people who ran into problems could go to a parent, go to a relative,  and families were more intact, so there were two wage earners in a household , teenage children  were working, doing what they could do. So, the issues of poverty still remain. 

"There are a lot more single parent households now, which prevents people from having flexibility with their employment, and also provides challenges to raising children."

I think there’s more drug and alcohol problems now than even when we started the organization, there’s a lot more crime because of the increase of illegal drugs, neighborhoods have deteriorated because they’ve been neglected, there hasn’t been adequate resources, people have moved  away. A lot of what remains is kind of obsolete. We have a lot of row-houses where there are high taxes, where there’s one bathroom, limited land, so they’ve become less desirable; a lot of turned into rental housing, so the actual community has changed. 

The other thing that happened is the de-institutionalization of all the mental hospitals. That dramatically increased the number of people, over the years, in the community with significant mental health problems.”

Q: Let’s look at this question a slightly different way. Is there more poverty in the county than there had been? Or, is it just different?

Ed Coleman: “I would say there are more working poor, due to the deterioration of families. As I said, one income versus two incomes. It is pretty astonishing how many grandparents are raising grandchildren. So, that is a dynamic we have really seen change.” 

Q: When you have a board meeting or a staff meeting, do you say we’re getting a big flow of people in this situation that we haven’t seen before?

Ed Coleman:  “We have demographics on the people who come in, and we also do results-oriented management and accountability to take a look at what people actually came in for, what was the impact, how did it benefit them, how did it benefit the community, what was the overall impact.  The needs of veterans; there’s been increased funding to provide and acknowledge the needs of veterans, and to provide the kinds of services needed. The things that have been going on around the country with school shootings and violence, and what’s happening in the streets. A lot of the clients we see are living in dangerous, very dangerous conditions because of gun violence, and drugs.”

Q: Some local observers cite poverty as the overwhelming social issue. I recently heard a local congressional candidate say that children growing up in single parent homes is our single biggest challenge. And, he acknowledged that his son had recently died of a drug overdose, so he has insight into two problem areas. Some people cite systemic racism. How do you respond to those opinions?

Ed Coleman: “I am not an expert, but like everything else, it’s probably a combination of all of that. And, the fact that it’s just a different world than it used to be. We have definitely continued to encounter many single parent households, plus now we also see a lot of grandparents raising grandchildren.  All of these different issues present many different and new challenges.”

Q: How are you reacting to that? It’s almost as if you need a different set of tactics for every situation.

Ed Coleman: “We do. We try to do it on an individual basis. We will try to hire someone who has an issue with their background; you would be surprised how many people have lost their license due to a parking ticket, or a speeding ticket they never paid. And now they lose their license for a period of time. So, we have worked with people to get them back on track. You have to give people opportunities, but we evict tenants from our rental housing, and people get removed from the shelters. But another low-income person moves into that rental unit, another needy person gets to go into the facility.

"...we have to promote responsibility for people. We provide the support they need, and as long as they are working with us, and trying to move forward, we'll stay with them."

We do a lot of case management, it is probably one of the most important things we do. We sit down with somebody, try to find out what issues they have, and try to come up with a roadmap to get out of the situation they are in. But there’s a fine line in promoting that and creating dependency. And that is the case manager’s role, to balance that fine line, and say “OK, we will help you with this, this you have to do on your own” and work with people over time to get them out of a situation they are in. When talking to staff, I always talk about “maybe there is someone who is not moving forward because they are clinically depressed, or they have some sort of anxiety problems.” The emphasis has to be, because of resources, on the most severe cases. But, maybe there’s someone who is suicidal, or wouldn’t go to appointments because they were depressed or have anxiety. We have a mental health clinician within the shelters to look at that. We also do that with youth. We have therapy programs to see how they’re developing, to see what issues the children may have that maybe could get addressed. When I first started 40-some years ago, somebody applied for weatherization, you took their application and they got weatherization. The next month they might be back, saying they’re out of food. Now it’s more of a comprehensive approach to dealing with all the issues. And, to be honest with you, unless there’s some major impediment, I think that if somebody wants to move themselves forward, who doesn’t have a physical reason or a psychological reason, there are resources out there to help people move forward. That’s the positive side of all of this.”

Q: What accomplishments of the agency are you most proud of?

Ed Coleman: “First of all, the fact that we have been able to weather many storms, for 4 decades. The challenges we face…we are trying to do it with less administrative resources than our corporate partners have. I think one of the biggest accomplishments is that we get between 40-50% of our budget coming from private resources. We don’t just take government money and spend it like a lot of organizations tend to do; and then when there’s a problem with that money they just go out of business. The professional opportunities that we have given to individuals over the years, the people we have been able to hire and promote, especially female and minority employees. I think our newly renovated building in Boothwyn combining most of our social services and administration is a tremendous accomplishment. And, of course, the number of people we have been able to serve over the years. "

"Thousands and thousands of people who have been able to move forward with their lives and get out of the situations they were in.”