Empowering families, changing lives
Podcast #71 — Aired October 26, 2015

A hand up can go a long way toward empowering families and changing lives. This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re talking about Utility Emergency Services Fund (UESF). Executive Director John Rowe will discuss how the not-for-profit helps families in crisis by addressing their immediate needs and removing the barriers to long-term stability.

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John Rowe
Executive Director, UESF

John Rowe has over thirty years of nonprofit executive experience. His career has focused upon empowering vulnerable families to become self-sufficient. As Executive Director of the Utility Emergency Services Fund, John is responsible for shaping the direction, mission, policies, and programs. John has created programs to prevent homelessness, to assist vulnerable families with disabled family members, and to stabilize families on welfare. Under John’s leadership, UESF has helped to stabilize over 30,000 vulnerable families. Since the beginning of John’s tenure of Executive Director in 2007, revenue has more than tripled and the number of full time employees grew from 6 to 29. UESF expanded programming has resulted in many more vulnerable families being served more completely.

 

Episode Transcript

Gregory Hansell
Hi and welcome to BetterWorldians Radio. BetterWorldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. Im Greg Hansell. This week on BetterWorldians Radio were talking about Utility Emergency Services Fund, known as UESF, a nonprofit that stabilizes housing for families facing housing crises by addressing their immediate needs and removing the barriers to long term stability. Ill be speaking with UESF executive director John Rowe. John has over thirty years of nonprofit executive experience. His career has focused on empowering vulnerable families to become self-sufficient. As Executive Director, John is responsible for shaping the direction, mission, policies, and programs. John has created programs to prevent homelessness, to assist vulnerable families with disabled family members, and to stabilize families on welfare. Under Johns leadership, UESF has helped to stabilize over thirty thousand vulnerable families. Since the beginning of Johns tenure of Executive Director in 2007, revenue has more than tripled and the number of full time employees grew from six to twenty-nine. UESF expanded programming has resulted in many more vulnerable families being served more completely. Hi John, thank you so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

John
Good morning Greg, thank you very much for having me on today.

Gregory Hansell
No, its our pleasure. So how did UESF get started?

John
It started in 1983, its one of the older nonprofit organizations in the city of Philadelphia. It was started by a partnership, a city wide partnership of business, community leaders, labor, religious leaders, city government, and the three Philadelphia utilities. Back then, the purpose was to prevent human suffering caused by the loss of utility service. It continued that way, for, since 1983 up until about five years ago, two years into my tenure here. And then, what we did here at UESF was to begin the evolution of UESF from primarily a grant making organization to help with utilities, to more of one of housing stabilization. And thats where we are today.

Gregory Hansell
Okay, well can you tell our listeners what UESF does, and who the organization specifically serves?

John
Well we serve vulnerable families. What we saw was that, while we were helping with utility assistance, families may have been paying their utilities, but what we saw was they were using funds that were dedicated towards their rents, or their mortgages, or other kinds of household needs. So we changed the way we looked at this, from a utility issue, to a poverty issue. So we deal with vulnerable families, and our process evolved to keep up with that. So we made it our business to go out and raise money, so that we could also pay for rents and mortgages, security deposits, and other things like that. And then we made it our business to get control of other kinds of benefits. For example, now were able to do the earned income tax credit, its, I think Ronald Reagan said it was the best anti-poverty program around. We do that, so we had to learn to do taxes to do that. So we dont control those funds, but we have some, we have an element of directing families then to get other kinds of assistances. So today what we do is, we do a full case management approach, where we assess where a family is, we develop a plan, we help them to implement it, and probably the most important part of this would be follow up. To make sure that families that get out of poverty, stay out of poverty. And thats the nature of what we do today. You read sort of a part of our mission statement, where we stabilize families facing a housing crisis to help with immediate needs and to remove barriers for the longer term. Significantly weve served about three thousand families a year, up to about five years ago, now we serve about twice that amount, but with much deeper kinds of assistance.

Gregory Hansell
It seems like you really have a comprehensive approach to vulnerability, and I think thats really important. I want to jump in to a second on some of the different aspects, within those programs, but tell me first what drew you personally to your role at UESF?

John
I have a background of about thirty-five years of working with vulnerable families, in a variety of capacities, either families that are homeless, approaching homelessness, families on welfare, families that were vulnerable. I knew UESF well along the way, and the excellent work that it did. And I thought that based upon my background, and what Ive learned over the years, that I could actually have an impact upon assisting vulnerable families to get out of poverty and stay out of poverty. Its always been something in my heart, I guess. I graduated with an MBA, I worked in private industry for a little bit, and something was missing.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

John
And I made the shift over to the nonprofit world, and it filled that void for me. To have a sense of mission, a sense of making the world better.

Gregory Hansell
Well thank you for everything that youre doing. So tell us, if we can start with this, what causes housing instability?

John
A lot of reasons, but probably the primary reason is poverty. There is simply insufficient income, and also insufficient money management skills. The insufficiency in income, thats sort of an obvious one, but I mean, I dont know how well its known, but Philadelphia is a very, very poor city. Its the one, its the highest, has the highest poverty rate of the ten top, ten largest cities in the United States at twenty-six percent.

Gregory Hansell
Wow.

John
That means that twenty-six percent of our one point six million people in Philadelphia are under one hundred percent of the poverty level. And the poverty level is, for a family of three, is twenty thousand dollars a year. So, and more significantly, Philadelphia has an extremely high whats termed deep poverty level, thats just fifty percent of the poverty level.

Gregory Hansell
Wow.

John
We have about a hundred eighty-five thousand families who earn less than ten thousand dollars a year. At that rate, everything is a major choice, every decision concerning money is a major event, and how to get through that is not always known. That causes, and also the inadequacy of managing money, through our work year, for example, we had one family come in and they were struggling to make it. As we did some basic budget counseling and some other workshops for them, either one on one or in a group, what quickly came out was that three people in the family smoked cigarettes. Im not judgmental about that, but the cost was two hundred dollars a month a piece for these three people.

Gregory Hansell
Wow.

John
We were actually able to show that to them in black and white, that this is what its costing you, and then we were able to make referrals where two people actually quit smoking and the third cut down. Financially it was a help of about five hundred dollars a month. Which was the amount that pushed them over towards beginning the upward spiral into more stability.

Gregory Hansell
Thats incredible. So tell me, please go ahead.

John
I just want to emphasize the consequences of poverty. Its children in deep poverty, they do less well in school, theyre less likely to be employed later, there are severe consequences towards the kids. Later in life theyre unable to get work for one reason or another, and it could be caused by the depression, or the disability that comes from the poverty. So the model that we look at, is that poverty has severe, very negative consequences, and those severe very negative consequences begets more poverty. So what were about is, we sure do want to help that one family, and we want to have an impact on that, but what we want to do is actually change the direction of that spiral.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah. No Im glad you highlighted that. You know, I dont think people realize that poverty isnt something, I mean to use a medical analogy, its not just something acute, it can be something chronic, it can have long term effects and it can move, those effects can move into some many different areas of peoples lives.

John
And like the, the normal kind of, the usual and normal kind of slogan is, should we use money to heat, or should we use money to eat? And even that kind of choice just begets a variety of very bad consequences. If a family does choose to, say for example, buy food, but will not pay for the heat, the lack of heat would cause medical problems.

Gregory Hansell
Sure.

John
That then would exacerbate problems that the food was meant to solve. So its a system, its organic, it slightly needs to be addressed from a holistic point of view. And thats the background, thats in my background Ive seen that that works the best actually working it that way.

Gregory Hansell
No I think thats excellent. Its a complex problem and it needs a comprehensive solution as you said, a holistic approach to all the different things that cause poverty. So John, how does UESF help families facing utility shutoffs for example?

John
Well, our utility work is the foundation of what we do. Its one service we provide within a context of a variety of other holistic services. We will help families get their utilities turned back on, or if they have a shutoff notice, we will prevent them from being turned off. We can help with providing direct financial assistance, we have fourteen sites around the city that are listed on our website and we have the unique attribute that the utilities will match our grants up to a limit. So we could, so a person could come in with a fifteen hundred dollar bill from PTW and that has caused their service to be turned off. We would help out with seven hundred and fifty dollars and PTW would then forgive the other seven hundred and fifty dollars. Whats important is that we need to zero the bill out, so even this has the sum of the ingredients of housing stabilization. We provide a fresh start for families so that, we saw that if a family actually digs themselves out of a hole where theyre completely out of it, theyre more likely to stay out of it.

Gregory Hansell
And so even just that little assistance must help give families really a boost, because it sounds like, you know, with just getting out of that hole, that could solve the problem, or at least get them on their way to solving the problem.

John
Yes, and that does help in that way, but what we saw too, as I mentioned, is that a lot of families need a little more help. Are we putting a Band-Aid on the problem where there is no utility service so we get the utility service, what we wanted to do was to get down to the root causes of why they were not affordable, and then to address that. But even with just utility assistance, having to make that choice, do I buy food, or do I pay the gas bill? That speaks of housing stabilization. Having a place, having a, if a family has a place to lie their head at night, and they feel like its going to be there the next day, that kind of stability just lends itself towards more self sufficiency within the family. If the lights are on, for example, then the family has better capacity to take on the care of their kids, or to find a job. Not to do this, not to provide help with utility assistance, could be incredibly detrimental. We know that lack of utility assistance puts families on the pathway to homelessness. Theyre not going to stay in a house too long if the heat isnt on during the winter time, or if theres no water for example. And then it has a variety of other corollary effects, children are removed from their homes if theres a lack of heat or electricity. The family will disintegrate. Seniors have been forced to sell their homes because they cant keep up with the heat bills, the electric bills. And whats not so obvious is that, how it effects the childs education. It has a detrimental effect because of the choices a poor family must make, but because theyre more likely to move more often than families that do not have to deal with the lack of utility service, they change schools a lot, and that interrupts their childrens education. So there are far reaching effects concerning the lack of utility assistance.

Gregory Hansell
No, I think its amazing, I dont think the people at home realize what a profound and lasting effect something as simple to them perhaps at home, you know, a utility bill can have on that family, and everyone in the future of the children of that family.

John
Well yeah, in a previous position, youre absolutely right Greg, in a previous position we dealt with families who were on welfare for quite a long time, and it was time for them to take steps to get off of welfare, or TANF as its called today. And what we saw was the stabilization of the home, was one of the most important things that needed to happen first as a foundation for other things to happen, as I stated for someone to go out to look for a job, first they got to deal with where theyre going to be sleeping tonight.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, well we need to take a quick break right now. When we return, well talk more with UESF executive director, John Rowe. In the meantime if youre a fan of BetterWorldians Radio, then you should check out our game on Facebook called A Better World. A Better World is a social game where you do good, feel good, and have fun. Players do things like express gratitude, share acts of kindness, send get well notes to real world sick children and more. Its been played by more than three million people that have done more than thirty-five million acts of good in the game. In the spirit of the holiday season, A Better World is now one hundred percent free until the end of the year. Through January 1st the only currency accepted is acts of kindness, and other social good you can do in game. Were also challenging players to perform one million good deeds total by the year end. When they do, A Better World will release funds to provide new coats for children in need nationwide through Operation Warm. So join A Better World on Facebook, and help us keep kids warm this holiday season and throughout the year. Well be right back.

Gregory Hansell
Youre listening to BetterWorldians Radio. Were speaking with John Rowe, executive director of UESF. So John, how does UESF help the people it serves learn self-sufficiency, and why is that so important?

John
Self-sufficiency is the name of the game here, we, thats what were about with everything that we do. So that families can stand on their own two feet, and they can be empowered to do that, rather than, be sort of spoon fed different things at different times. And we see that this works. We do a full case management approach, and we do one on one counselings, and we do overall group workshops. We want to assess where a family is, so that then they can with us create a plan and then go out and implement the plan. But were there to guide them along the way. We cant continue to help families without empowering them to help themselves, it just makes no sense, and pragmatically there is not enough funds out there to help families to do this. We dont want to supplement income, we want to be a positive force so that the vulnerable families themselves can get their own income. Not to sound trite, but give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for life.

Gregory Hansell
Sure.

John
We dont, we dont have many fish to give, what we do have is the ability to teach how this happens, and it works. Our workshop series has taken off, where we do a variety of workshops, anything from saving money on your utility bill, financial literacy, professionalism, budget counseling, and a variety of other workshops in order to give families the basic knowledge on how to go ahead and be empowered to work for themselves. Self-sufficiency also produces a sense of human dignity.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

John
Its an acknowledgment that families do have the power to do this. To do it for them doesnt work, and it also produces a sort of the attitude is, I need someone to do this for me, rather than I need someone to teach me how to do it.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, no Im glad you actually brought that up, I was going to ask you about that specifically, it must provide a sense of ownership of being able to say, I can actually do this, I can pull myself out of this just with a little bit of help. Rather than I need someone to continually assist me with this.

John
If I could just jump around a little bit here, for example, we will be talking about some of our other programs in this interview. We run a program for veterans, and part of what weve done is weve helped a lot of veterans, but we actually hired three veterans that we helped. And this is the epitome of empowerment and self-sufficiency. Theyre now working for us, going out in the evening helping us to find, theyre salaried staff, theyre going out to, with a sense of enthusiasm that only they could have already coming from this background. And theyre finding veterans who need our help. That in itself is a success story, and because of that those veterans who are helping us find other veterans, the sense that this works and this can be done, its permeates throughout the program. Thats the sense of human dignity that Im talking about.

Gregory Hansell
I think thats great, and I love that sense also, of kind of, you know, a virtuous or positive spiral, right? Instead of a downward spiral that you get by people being able to help each other, and then other people get involved, I think thats excellent.

John
Yes.

Gregory Hansell
So, you mentioned your veterans program, tell us how UESF works with veterans experiencing homelessness?

John
Well as I had mentioned, we evolved into housing stabilization and we have been successful with that. And based upon that success, we got involved with helping to resolve veteran homelessness in Philadelphia, and ultimately in the United States. What we have is weve been doing this for two years, and we served approximately four hundred veterans so far, who were either homeless or approaching homelessness. The kinds of things we do is not much different than what weve done with other families, but this is geared towards the veteran population. What we will provide financial assistance, housing placement, referrals to employment, and last, but not least, our self-sufficiency workshops to help veterans get back on their feet. And weve been highly successful at it, weve housed or stabilized, either housing or stabilized housing for eighty percent, for over eighty percent of the four hundred that weve served, and were still working on the other twenty percent, theyre just, some more difficult cases. Its important to say that were working in partnership too with a variety of other organizations in the city, Philadelphias Office of Supportive Housing, The Veterans Multi-Service Center, Project Home, Impact Services, Pathways and others. And this partnership is to end veteran homelessness, and we will be announcing on Veterans Day, which is November the eleventh, about three weeks from now, that Philadelphia has ended veteran homelessness in the city of Philadelphia. That means that, whereas there may have been around six hundred homeless veterans on the streets, about six months ago, now there are a nominal number out there, probably less than thirty. And were out there now trying to find those last thirty, and theyre probably the hardest to find. What were trying to accomplish is to get homelessness down to functional zero, or any veteran who is on the street, their stay in homelessness is rare, brief, and nonrecurring. And this is an effort that is happening all over the country, I believe New Orleans was the first city to announce their success, their conquest of veteran homelessness.

Gregory Hansell
Thats incredible, I dont think people know about that program.

John
Philadelphia will have its first Veterans Day parade, the Sunday before Veterans Day. I believe the date is the eighth of November. The, its not, it needs to be more well known, the kind of cooperation, the collaboration is unprecedented, we have organizations from a variety of backgrounds all geared towards this, to resolve the horrible condition of veterans who are out on the street, who served this country and now have no place to stay. And the VA is behind this also big time.

Gregory Hansell
You know, its obviously really horrible, of course, you know, no one in society should be comfortable if anyone is homeless, especially given the amount of wealth that we throw around in this country, but specifically for veterans who have done so much for this country to be homeless is, its a tragedy.

John
Thats something I can never understand, why there is homelessness, how it got to this point. Back when homelessness began to happen, I began to see, I worked down at twelfth and market, and there was an alley behind twelfth and market and I began to see more and more people, not necessarily the veterans, but more and more people showing up there sleeping on the street, and as you say Greg, in this country with enormous wealth, how can that be? And so thats what were working on, I mean thats, and a lot of it has to do with stabilization and reversing the spiral of the direction people are going into.

Gregory Hansell
Well its a huge problem and youre doing great work with it, Im happy to tell the listeners that theyre some success stories through UESF that I know you can share. Can you share one of those?

John
Absolutely, and they all have the same theme, some of this may be on our website, we change it often though, depending upon, we just change the stories, but there was a gentleman named Michael who came in to see us, and what looked like a utility bill problem. But he had two outstanding utility bills and they were so high that he was unable to access housing because landlords, he couldnt get other service, he couldnt get new utility service and landlords would not lease to him because he was unable to get utility service. He found himself unable to get housing and he had to actually move into a shelter because of utility bills. We provided him with a one time grant to clear one of the utility bills and we helped him with some counseling and payment agreements with another utility, and because of that he was able then to work on, work towards leaving the shelter. We worked, he did leave the shelter, and the amount of utility bills that we paid was probably not more than, which may sound like a large amount of maybe two thousand dollars, the cost to keep this gentleman in the shelter to the city of Philadelphia approached thirty thousand dollars a year. But no end in sight, until he was able to get other housing. So we resolved the utility issue, we worked with him to identify how much rent he could afford, we actually provided him with an initial grant to cover his first and last months rent, and a security deposit, and now hes stabilized. He has paid full time employment, which I firmly believe has to do with the ability to be stable, rather than have to deal with everything that goes on in a shelter, and also the prospect of despair, what will tomorrow bring?

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

John
And more significantly, he began working on a bachelors degree at Chestnut Hill College.

Gregory Hansell
Wonderful.

John
A lot of the stories, theres a few others, theyre on our website and theres just about the same, they have the same theme of one or two negative things happened, it produces more of a ripple effect, theres a downward spiral, and how do you get out of it? What we try to do is catch it quickly, or if we cant catch it quickly, we know what were dealing with when we do catch it, like someone who is in the shelter because of utility bills. And we actually have a partnership with the Office of Supportive Housing, where we help out with utility bills to get people out of the shelter system. And then contribute to their prosperity, actually afterwards.

Gregory Hansell
You know that brings up another good point, theres an expression there before the grace of God, go I, right? I think people dont realize how many of us, if not all of us are just one or two small little disasters away from the kind of struggles that your organization helps with every day. I think people unfortunately get a sense of oh this person didnt have their life together, and what not, when really maybe they did and they just happened to come on some bad luck, and that bad luck started to spiral. So thank you for the amazing work youre doing to help reverse that spiral. Tell our listeners how they can support UESF.

John
Well we are a nonprofit organization and we try really, really hard to get the funding that we need and use it in a way that produces the most results for the amount of money. But there comes a time every year where we must shut down our programs, because we are out of funds. The best way that anyone can help us is to find out more about us and to see whether or not this is something they can support financially. The, since this is housing stabilization, there is an incredible economic multiplier effect that produces good in the neighborhoods, in the city, in the country and in the world. Just by having people back on their feet. On the other side of it, since we are the last resort, if we dont help them, they wont get help. The downward spiral will continue or it will intensify and more problems will come from this. The gentleman we just talked about, Michael, his children may be dealing with this because hes dealing with it. But what I think happened though, hes on a upward spiral now where we dont have to deal, we dont have to deal with it financially any longer, but we have someone who is empowered to do this for himself. Thats how the listeners could help, find out more about what we do, say on our website, visit us, and if then if they can find it in their hearts to do contribute funds to us, but to view it as an investment, rather than a one shot insertion of cash to help us to continue, thats not what were about.

Gregory Hansell
John I have time for only one more question today, its a question that we ask every guest, every week at the end of our show. In your case, that is how do you hope that UESF is helping to make the world a better place for families in need?

John
Probably in two ways, I mean in the nitty-gritty were empowering vulnerable families to get out and stay out of poverty. To contribute to the overall good in the world. The second way though, is more what I consider our thirty thousand foot view, to help shift, its probably more important, to shift the paradigm from one of greed in selfishness to one of greed in caring for our fellow human beings. You eluded to that a little while ago Greg. And if I could end with a quote?

Gregory Hansell
Sure.

John
The times talk to us of so much poverty in the world, and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that theyre so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a crime. Thats Pope Francis in 2013. And that epitomizes what were about.

Gregory Hansell
Well I cant think of a better way than Pope Franciss words to end the show today. So John I will just thank you for joining us on BetterWorldians Radio.

John
Greg thank you very much and I really appreciate all the good that you do in the world.

Gregory Hansell
Thank you very much. You can learn more about UESF by going to UESF Acts dot org. Thats U-E-S-F A-C-T-S dot org. As we end our show we like to share our BetterWorldians mission. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking, positive values, and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldian in everybody, so we can all make it a better world. So until next time, please be a BetterWorldian.