From the moment I walked into People Acting in Community Endeavors (PACE), an anti poverty agency in New Bedford, I could tell that there was something special about the place. Maybe it was how warmly I was greeted outside the building even before anyone knew who I was. Maybe it was how warmly the staff greeted each other and their clients.
I’m not sure what it was but my first instincts were right. PACE is an organization that people in the South Coast area call when they need help -- either housing or childcare or food. I visited because the agency received two stimulus grants -- $775K for housing and $114K for child care – and I wanted to see firsthand the impact of those awards.
Ken Grace, who runs the housing program for the agency (and was hired with the stimulus funds) told me that they were able to help 116 households with the stimulus money so far. The number is meaningful and Ken’s oversight of the program was clearly impressive, but hearing the stories from the people themselves was the most powerful element of the visit.
Dave, who has COPD and is awaiting a lung transplant, had trouble talking but he told me the housing help saved him and his son from living on the street. Fidel came with his two young sons and told me that, were it not for PACE, he, his wife and four kids would have been kicked out of their home. Richard came with his wife Lucille and he told me how he lost his job and PACE helped them find more affordable housing and helped them get back on their feet. John had been an electrician until a car accident forced him onto disability. His house was repossessed and he and his son had nowhere to go. PACE helped him apply for rent subsidies and helped them find a place he could afford. “I am where I am today because of PACE,” he told me.
Bruce Morel, PACE’s executive director, emphasized to me that PACE doesn’t just distribute funds, they develop relationships. Nowhere was this more evident than in the landlords who showed up to describe how they work with the PACE case managers to help the tenants stay where they are. “No one wins in an eviction,” Ken said and everyone in that room – tenants, landlords, case managers -- couldn’t have agreed more. But the landlords have a mortgage to pay and their presence was a potent reminder of the ripple effect of the recession and of the stimulus funding.
Another feature of PACE’s approach to housing speaks to the organization’s goal to develop self sufficiency in its clients, the only way, said Ken, to eliminate poverty. Ken told me he implemented an 80/20 rule in which tenants had to pay 20 percent of the rent if they are in arrears for more than three months to ensure they were invested in their tenancy and in their future. It is an interesting approach worth thinking about for more programs.
One of the case managers, Jill, had been laid off from her job as a credit counselor in a bank before she got the job at PACE. Many of the clients who spoke worked with her and they praised her empathy and willingness to go to bat for them. The fact that she knows firsthand what a job loss can do to a family is what enables her, she told me, to do her job so well. “There is not one person on this staff that wouldn’t extend themselves for the clients here,” she told me.
These are extraordinary times but PACE -- and many social service agencies -- are demonstrating that this state is fortunate to have extraordinary and courageous people, clients and staff, who are taking stimulus’ help and doing all they can to prevent a difficult economic situation from destroying lives.