As Eugene Wilson fumbled with his latest energy bill and a wade of crumpled dollar bills at the front desk of United Communities of Southeast Philadelphia, he smiled and chatted cheerfully with the receptionist.
“They help me out with my home, my energy bills. They just do it all here,” said Wilson, a Southeast Philadelphia resident and an avid patron of United Communities of Southeast Philadelphia.
From lowering energy bills to helping struggling homeowners keep their homes from being foreclosed, United Communities has become a vital presence in the lives of local residents.
“We are sort of a beacon within the community,” said Francis Carney, executive director of the organization.
In 1969, three settlement houses joined to form the United Communities that residents are familiar with today, with the main facility, the Houston Center, located at the corner of Eighth and Snyder streets. Yet the organization’s roots extend as far back as the 1850s. United Communities also provides services at the Southwark House as well as youth programs out of four local schools, including Southwark Elementary School, Sharswood Elementary School, Fell Elementary School and Furness High School.
Thanks to its historical ties to the settlement house movement, Carney said United Communities has always made the newcomer populations in South Philadelphia feel welcome.
Carney noted that over the last 10 years, United Communities has been providing services to the community’s Southeast Asian and rising Mexican populations. He added that there has been an influx of Bhutanese, Nepalese and Burmese people coming to the center over the past few years.
“A lot of refugee resettlement occurs in South Philadelphia,” Carney said.
Reaching out to various refugee groups is the next focus for United Communities.
“It’s a very diverse community and sometimes bringing it together can be very difficult,” Carney said. But he added that “someone’s got to step up and do it.”
Currently, United Communities is working with various partner agencies in order to help these refugee groups that are often ignored.
In an attempt to bring residents in the area closer together while improving their way of life here in Philadelphia, United Communities offers an English as a Second Language program. Carney said that recently the organization has seen an increase in enrollment in its ESL classes.
“People are being acclimated to living in America through some of the services we’re able to offer,” he said. “It’s a pretty significant thing.”
Carney recalled one instance in which an ESL teacher at one of its partnering schools reached out to a young man and got him involved in the ESL program.
“We really made a connection with his family,” he said. “And he became a sort of ambassador for the [ESL] program.”
While United Communities is making a valiant effort to help minorities in South Philadelphia, Carney added that the organization operates a variety of services for the entire community.
“I actually went to preschool here. I’m 66 years old, so this place has been around a long time. It does a lot of good things for the people here,” said Eleanor Brown, a Southeast Philadelphia resident.
Among United Communities’ services are various “out-of-school time” programs, which provide children a safe place to complete schoolwork and interact with peers. Over the past couple of years, Carney said that the organization has developed a new “teen work” program, which provides adolescents with career counseling, internships and sometimes first-time job placement. He said he finds it rewarding to help these teens graduate high school and find a job.
United Communities also offers housing counseling and case management programs that have grown increasingly popular among local residents since the 2008 economic collapse.
“Because of changes in the outside world, we’ve had to adapt a lot more,” Carney said.
Prior to the economic collapse, a lot of first-time homebuyers sought advice at United Communities. But since 2008, United Communities has seen a rise in home foreclosures and tailored its services accordingly.
“We’ve been really successful in the past year being able to help people keep from having their homes foreclosed on and being able to stay as homeowners in the community,” he said.
During these tough economic times, Carney said that United Communities also wants to create more workforce programs that teach people essential skills for getting a job. In a similar program, Carney said that the organization successfully helped 60 people between the ages of 20 and 50 find employment.
With every service it provides to disadvantaged locals, United Communities continues to live up to its name.