Personal Testimony

The story of poverty in Pennsylvania is varied. Individuals from all walks of life and all areas of the state struggle to access adequate wages and resources. These individuals simply do not have enough money to meet their basic needs. This occurs because of systemic and individual obstacles. The report’s focus and main source of information were detailed narratives from people struggling with poverty and those helping to address it in various communities. The testimony conveyed critical prime source information that will help policymakers better understand and address what is needed to permanently lift men and women out of poverty.

Lock Haven – STEP Clinton County Community Center – May 23, 2019

Senator Haywood and Senator Vincent Hughes participated in the discussion in Lock Haven.

Leesa’s Story

Leesa moved from Ohio to Pennsylvania in 2014 with her two children, ages one and three. They did not have family here or access to child care. Leesa also faced a pay gap. She was unemployed for 10 years and is now enrolled in the Work Ready Program through Trehab, a Community Action Agency serving several upper-tier counties.

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Trehab has helped her become more independent and self-sufficient. Not only has the organization helped her obtain birth certificates, social security cards and a driver’s license, it is also helping Leesa with build her resume and hone her interviewing skills in preparation for re-entry into the workforce. She is currently working through a medical assistant certification program paid for in part by Trehab. Leesa hopes to find a job as a receptionist and medical biller at a doctor’s office. She said medical billers make $12-15 per hour.

When Leesa first came to Trehab, she began doing community service at Goodwill Industries and eventually was offered a job at their facility. Leesa and her children would walk one and one-half hours home at the end of each workday. As a person without resources, Leesa said that it was difficult to find a job if one is not available within a walkable distance. She said this was an extreme impediment to employment. Looking at future options, Leesa said some jobs are walkable in the medical billing field, while other jobs require another mode of transportation to get to work.

Leesa cited lack of flexible child care as another high barrier to finding a job. She said evening and weekend child care is needed but is generally unavailable, leaving folks with limited job experience fewer employment opportunities outside regular working hours.

Breilun’s Story

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Breilun moved to Pennsylvania after he “got the boot” from his mom for doing things she did not approve of. Breilun had a suspended license and expired car registration, and his activities eventually caught up with him. He went to jail twice. When he was not in jail, Breilun was taking care of his siblings. He suffered the loss of his brother due to a collapsed lung.

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After leaving jail for the second time, Breilun decided to change the course of his life. He enrolled in the EARN Program and began receiving SNAP benefits. Often, he said, he wanted to give up because he made more money on the streets, but officials from the EARN Program convinced him to stick with the program. Breilun first obtained a job at One Alert in customer service. He said he was able to receive the offer for work because he was taught techniques for successful job interviewing, skills he never would have learned without EARN. He ended up joining the sales team at One Alert and became a top salesman. From there, he applied for his birth certificate and social security card so he could get his license reinstated.

Breilun knew he wanted more. He used CareerLink to find a route sales job and wanted to branch out even more. He ended up buying his own route and is currently building his own business. He said he is making roughly $3,000 per week and providing a good life for his siblings and child because he decided to work the programs that were available and stay motivated by not letting setbacks define his future.

Judith’s Story

Judith is a 19-year-old Lycoming County resident who has faced a series of difficult hurdles in her life. Judith was abandoned by her father when she was five-years-old – forcing her mother to work various jobs to make ends meet. As a young person, she was sexually abused by her cousin after he was released from prison. She was also bullied, which led to self-harming behaviors.

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Judith did not graduate from high school and was subsequently arrested for theft and placed on probation. She then entered the Youth Enrichment for Success (YES) program at STEP, an at-risk youth program that helps young adults overcome barriers to self-sufficiency. The program is a partnership between STEP, Lycoming Children & Youth Services, Lycoming County Juvenile Probation Office and the Lycoming County Criminal Justice Advisory Board.

In the YES program and through the interventions provided at STEP, Judith has made great strides. She obtained her needed identification and documentation, completed her GED, worked on her resume and became more self-dependent. While Judith still says she is not quite ready to move out on her own and prefers to stay with her mom for now, the YES program has provided her with small weekly stipends to help pay for some costs of living. Judith has health issues requiring a special, more expensive diet. She receives up to $45 per week for diligently attending YES classes, which helps to pay some of those costs.

Tyran’s Story

Tyran came to Central Susquehanna Opportunities to find help and opportunity. The father to a young son, Tyran wanted to leave the shelter and seek housing elsewhere. He had a hard time sleeping at the shelter and was concerned for his son’s safety. Facing poverty at the age of 23, he entered the EARN Program to find a job and make a better life for his child. He was able to get a temporary job and an apartment.

Tyran began his association with the Employment, Advancement and Retention Network (EARN) program as an outlet to work on improving his life. After observing the plight of other individuals in the program, he encouraged younger participants to follow his example to better their lives through programs such as EARN. Tyran said many people facing poverty end all attempts to improve their situation. Instead they admit defeat. He said SNAP benefits and other assistance programs do not provide substantial monetary payments, and, oftentimes, finding employment is a full-time job. Using himself as an example, Tyran said people can pull themselves out of poverty with faith and hard work.

Tyran is currently working with AmeriCorps but not earning as much as in previous jobs. He said Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have been helpful to him. He said he would stretch SNAP benefits to last a month because it was his only source of income. Tyran does not use SNAP currently, but he does use LIHEAP for help with his energy bills. Living without a car, he walks to destinations due to the complexity of syncing his schedule with that of the bus system.

Kenar’s Story’s Story

Kenar is a 19-year-old man who grew up in a single-parent household with transient housing situations. His dad left when he was born. His mom was nearly killed in a domestic dispute. His mom was able to take the two boys to North Carolina to live with her parents, but Kenar’s grandfather kicked them out after one year. The family moved to another town and lived in a battered women’s shelter for six months. They were finally able to find an apartment where they lived for three years before moving to Charlotte.

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Eventually Kenar moved to an apartment in Coatesville with his grandmother. Unfortunately, the apartment was infested with bed bugs, which forced them to vacate. When Kenar enrolled in school, the district refused to accept credits, mandating that he had to repeat ninth grade. At the age of 15, Kenar moved again, this time to Williamsport where he was finally able to finish ninth grade. During this time, he lived in a shelter for five months.

Kenar dropped out of school and got his GED through CareerLink. He enrolled in the YES program at STEP. He says this program helped him because the staff really cared and motivated him to succeed. He was able to get a photo ID and driver’s permit and has taken driving lessons to get his driver’s license. He was also able to get a job through STEP at Aramark in the local hospital and currently makes $8.98 per hour after working for the past year. He said the hospital provides free transportation to work, but he also walks and skateboards when he needs to get places.

Kenar got his first apartment through interventions provided at STEP. The cost is roughly $400 per month. He decided to hold off on going to college for a few years, preferring to work and experience living on his own. He plans to study computer support and networking when he goes back to school. He also plans to open his own photography business and website.

Janice’s Story

Janice has moved through the EARN program several times on her path toward self-sufficiency. She left home at 18 to attend DuBois Business College of Huntington where she majored in Specialized Business. Through a series of events, she lost her apartment and was homeless for a large portion of her final semester of college. At the same time, she found out she was pregnant. She became a single parent with an infant son and had no idea where to go for help. She went to the county assistance office for housing help. They ushered her into the EARN program, which she began eight years ago.

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Janice said she has a unique perspective for utilizing the help she has received due to her business degree background. Her first community service project was helping fellow EARN program enrollees with business-related skills, such as resume building and interviewing skills. Janice said this was a wonderful experience and a huge lesson in the importance of networking, which is one of the primary skills she is using in advancing herself.

Janice was able to gain summer employment with the local intermediate unit as a trainer and finger printer, and later as a part-time para-educator at an early intervention pre-school. Eventually, she was hired full-time as a teaching assistant. She then moved to Blair County where she found full-time work as an assistant group supervisor at a daycare. By then, she was expecting her second child. For 11 months, Janice was fortunate to stay at home with her children. Unfortunately, during this time, she became a single mother again. She entered the EARN program and found employment at a candy factory. While this job paid the bills, Janice knew it would not make her happy. When she was presented with an opportunity through the Early Learning Resource Center (ELRC), she became excited for this next chapter in her life.

Janice was furloughed following her probationary period at the ELRC because she was supposedly not the right fit for the job. Her worst nightmares were coming true. She again faced unemployment and continued reliance on government assistance programming.

Instead, her life took a positive turn and reinforced the power of networking in creating a successful path forward. She was approached by her STEP coordinator to gauge her interest in a position as a career counselor with the Blair County EARN Program through the Center for Community Action (CCA). She remains in this position today. While not completely out of poverty, Janice is on a more stable path toward self-sufficiency.

Brittany’s Story

Brittany is the matriarch of a family of five. Her husband is disabled. When they fell on hard times, they went to the county assistance office and found out they qualified for assistance. Brittany entered the EARN program. She volunteered at a local food bank to meet the community service hours requirement under the program. She also took classes that taught skills in resume writing, filling out job applications and interviewing for work.

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She was nurtured and her work ethic was recognized and encouraged by the staff at CCA. Having this reinforcement meant so much to Brittany, as she had not grown up in a stable family situation. After working at the food bank for two years, she was further recognized for her work ethic and was offered a job at CCA. After accepting the position over three years ago, Brittany said her family is now in a totally different place. Not only is she able to pay her family’s bills, but she is able to provide things that her children not only need, but things they might also want.

“I don’t have to choose between paying a bill or buying them a gift,” Brittany said. Her family has been able to take their first vacation and she is in the process of buying their first home. Brittany said will always be grateful for CCA and the programs that enabled her to get to this point in her life.

Philadelphia – Face to Face – May 24, 2019

Senator Haywood, Senator Katie Muth and Senator Hughes hosted the discussion in Philadelphia.

Rose’s Story

Rose was a registered cardiac nurse for 15 years, an artist and actor. After her father died, Rose suffered a heart attack and required surgery. She lived in Virginia Beach, where the surgery was performed and botched, leaving Rose with an irreparable disability. She is unsure of her life’s expectancy at this point.

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After her surgery, Rose came to Philadelphia. She struggled to find housing on her own and attempted to live with her mentally-ill sister. Rose was not allowed to stay in her sister’s housing and became homeless with her autistic adult son. She began coming to Face to Face to receive housing assistance, get healthy meals and find some kindness in the chaos of being homeless.

Rose has been living in her car for the past nine months with her son and caregiver from Virginia. She currently receives Medicare and Medicaid. Her car is falling apart, and, without a place to live, she relies on prepared meals that are often cold or less-than-healthy. Further, the $100 she and her son receive in SNAP benefits each month does not cover these meals. Her SNAP benefits only last approximately one and one-half weeks.

Rose is having difficulty getting placement in the shelter system because of her son’s unique needs. She hopes to get her son into safe housing for adults with special needs so that she can find an assisted living facility to help with her own medical needs.

Leon’s Story

Leon has been in recovery for alcohol addiction. He is attending church and living in an alcohol recovery house where he shares a room with another man. However, Leon has dealt with many health-related issues including a diagnosis of diabetes, heart issues, poor circulation and a herniated disc. Recently, he had double hernia surgery that was not done properly and required a blood transfusion after surgery.

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Leon is grateful for the benefits he receives and believes government is helping him live a better life. He receives SNAP benefits for food and social security disability income to help him pay for housing. He also receives Medicare and Medicaid to cover his medication costs and small comforts at the House of Healing where he lives.

Helen’s Story

Helen has been dealing with housing problems for 18 years following a fire that destroyed her home in 2001. For the next seven years, she spent time in and out of shelters, or floating between friends’ and family’s homes until she had to return to the shelter regularly in 2008.

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In 2010, Helen found an apartment and lived there for four years. Eventually, the landlord lost the house to a short sale – forcing Helen to seek help in a shelter. The provider was unable to assist her because she was receiving Social Security Disability.

Helen received General Assistance and SNAP benefits until she was able to find an attorney and apply for Social Security Disability, which provided her first reliable income in years. Helen had previously worked at McDonald’s as a maintenance person making poverty wages of $7.25 per hour at the state minimum wage. She received a 20-cent raise in the 18 months she was employed there but was laid off after the franchise owner sold the business. Once disability payments stabilized her income, however, she no longer qualified to stay in the shelter system, as her income was now “too high” for a single adult.

Helen was able to find a room where she lived and paid rent for three years; however, the landlord was not maintaining the property, leaving Helen in unsafe living conditions. She now shares a small apartment with a friend.

Helen said the system is helpful at certain junctures, but improvements must be made to the shelter system and affordable housing assistance program. Many people are disqualified from entering shelters because they have a stable income, even if that income is not enough for them to procure housing in the unsubsidized market.

Ike’s Story

Ike was just shy of 73 when he spoke to the panel. A retiree, he had previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 13 years and was a former school board member.

Ike echoed the comments of many others in expressing frustration with the lack of available quality housing options. He has been to several senior citizen housing venues where he claims he was “given the run-around,” experiencing long wait times on the phone or never receiving a call back. Despite applying for new senior citizen housing for the past five years, he continues to reside with his daughter. Ike receives some public assistance and retirement benefits but said he does not receive SNAP benefits. He says many vets face similar housing and poverty issues.

Cynthia’s Story

Cynthia’s story is similar to many of the stories heard on the Poverty Listening Tour. As with many others struggling in Philadelphia, Cynthia had issues with housing. She rents a house and has an oral agreement rather than a written lease. She has been residing there for one and one-half years.

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During this time, Cynthia has been dealing with leaks all over her house. She has called the landlord repeatedly to fix the problems. Of her several maintenance requests, he has only fixed a large hole in the floor, and the repair occurred only after Cynthia fell through the opening. She is unable to use her second floor bathroom, because the sink leaks into the first floor. The leak issue has caused mold to grow throughout the house.

Cynthia has called the fire department and the Philadelphia Office of Licenses and Inspections (L&I). After she called L&I, her landlord took her to court. A judge ruled in her favor.

Cynthia’s electricity was subsequently shut off, forcing her to pay a hefty fee to have her service reinstated.

Steve’s Story

Steve comes to Face to Face whenever it is open. He credits the organization and his family for keeping him strong and focused through their love and care. Steve has served time in jail and is determined to avoid reincarceration.

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On the day of Senator Haywood’s visit to Face to Face, Steve was scheduled for a job interview at the Daily News. He had worked at Barnes and Noble in Center City. Before that, he worked two jobs at poverty wages, one of which was a maintenance worker at Tesla. Since he did not have his own car, his boss would drive him to and from work in the suburbs. Between the job at Tesla and his other employment, Steve was earning roughly $680 per month.

Steve was able to purchase his own home five years ago and can keep his housing situation stable with the support of his family and the community. He receives a free monthly SEPTA pass, which helps him travel around the city. He receives SNAP benefits and plans to apply for LIHEAP to help pay his heating bills. Steve also received medical assistance but says he has received the run-around from cash assistance.

He said he was treated relatively well with regards to SNAP benefits, despite a lack of notification that his benefits had been canceled. He now knows he must renew his SNAP benefits every six months. Steve said he was discouraged, however, from applying for cash assistance through the General Assistance program after a problem with his paperwork.

Cherri’s Story

Cherri expressed frustration with the county assistance offices. She said she always hands her paperwork directly to someone at the office, but, regardless of these efforts, her paperwork does not get processed. She received a letter from Social Security explaining she was going to lose disability benefits because they had not received her paperwork. She said it is disheartening and difficult, not only because of her diligence in submitting her paperwork, but also because a person must go through recertification every time a benefits renewal is required.

Erie – Urban Erie Community Development Corporation – May 29, 2019

Senator Haywood and Senator Dan Laughlin led the discussion in Erie.

Danielle’s Story

Danielle discussed her efforts to escape poverty. She is a single mother of three and a military veteran who said she was discriminated against while looking for housing and employment.

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Danielle said she was often able to find housing in a variety of locations, but it was substandard. Better accommodations for her family were unavailable because of low-wage jobs. Unable to find housing, she said she was compelled to go to a homeless shelter. Of particular concern was Danielle’s desire to find proper schooling for her children.

In addition to housing, employment and school issues, Danielle said she was also a victim of domestic violence.

Jasmine’s Story

Jasmine was trained and worked as a medical assistant. Despite her training and employment, she struggled with poverty wages with no benefits.

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Her wages were frozen, and, already being too low, Jasmine sought SNAP benefits to help cover expenses. She also carries more than $15,000 in student loan debt. Jasmine said the key to escaping poverty is getting a job with family-sustaining wages. She also said a minimum wage hike is essential.

Cole’s Story

Cole outlined his struggle with poverty. Due to his father’s heroin addiction, he was raised by his mother. Domestic violence and drug use were commonplace in the household during his childhood. Despite health issues, Cole said he wants to be self-sufficient. He uses Medical Assistance for his health care needs but struggles to find affordable housing. He is both a high school and college graduate. For his work, he runs a book store.

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Cole used to receive SNAP benefits, but worried about losing benefits if his income surpassed program eligibility thresholds. He said surpassing program income limits would have resulted in him losing health care and other benefits. He said program income cut-off limits were an impediment to breaking free from poverty.

Dave’s Story

The discussion of how poverty impacts rural communities was at the center of Dave’s story. Dave is associated with the Union City Family Support Center, a program that addresses poverty issues in rural areas of Erie County.

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Dave said he lives and works in a region that was devastated by economic globalization. He added that transportation issues also remain a major challenge for poor people in rural areas.

Dave recommended that poor people in rural areas could benefit from education and the bolstering of support networks. He said there were many factors that kept swaths of the population in poverty, but the low minimum wage, disability issues and program income thresholds were significant poverty factors. Dave said food stamps were helpful, but that the total amount available per month was insufficient.

Ntambese’s Story

Ntambese is an immigrant from the Congo who came to the United States as a refugee. She said refugees need more help in assimilating to our country. While Ntambese found a work opportunity through the Erie Urban Community Center, the language barrier was a significant obstacle. She said she was discriminated against because of her inability to master English.

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Despite her early difficulties with the language, Ntambese developed her English language skills enough to pursue a college degree at Edinboro University. In addition to language, Ntambese identified child care as an issue which makes dealing with poverty more difficult. She added that she worries about losing benefits when exceeding program income guidelines.

Amenia’s Story

Safety and security were top concerns for Amenia. She painfully described her efforts to avoid harm in the community. She said that in her housing development, gunshots were commonplace. Amenia said she tried to help her family deal with poverty but struggled to make much progress.

McKeesport – Penn State Greater Allegheny – May 30, 2019

Senator Haywood and Senator Jim Brewster hosted the McKeesport meeting.

Linda’s Story

The story of poverty in Pennsylvania is complex. Poverty includes people from all walks of life and occurs for a variety of reasons. The report’s focus and main source of information were detailed narratives from people struggling with poverty and those helping to address it in various communities. The testimony conveyed critical prime source information that will help policymakers better understand and address what is needed to permanently lift men and women out of poverty. Their stories follow.

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Relative to SNAP benefits, Linda said she receives $114 per month or $28 per week, which makes it exceptionally difficult to get enough healthy foods.

In her testimony, Linda cited communications issues as boundaries that halted any significant advancement. She added that she is frustrated with her continued medical challenges.

William’s Story

William said he faced multiple challenges attaining enough money to provide for his basic needs. When seeking help from county offices, he said caseworkers did not seem familiar with all the programs that might have been helpful to him.

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William added that while cash assistance and SNAP gave him some hope, it was not enough. He said the system needs to be changed and that he is more comfortable seeking assistance from non-profit service providers and community groups than government assistance offices.

Toni’s Story

Toni focused on education in discussing her plight. She said that more educational opportunities and program information are needed to help people struggling with poverty. She added that better information and opportunities would result in better use of services. Toni voiced concern about students suffering from hunger while attending community college. She argued that not only are jobs critical, but SNAP benefits should not be taken away from 18-year-old students, regardless of circumstances.

Rochelle’s Story

A single mother, Rochelle said she relies on the help she receives from family and government support networks. She said that in her journey to self-sufficiency, she has had a lot of help along the way. Rochelle said single moms are at the heart of the poverty issue and the key to overcoming challenges is to break down barriers and work toward economic justice.

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Rochelle said reform efforts need to recognize that poverty is not about people not working or not wanting to work, but rather about people working hard and not earning enough money. To address low wages, she said more employment skill training is needed to produce living wages. Focusing on challenges faced by single mothers, Rochelle lamented that certain jobs are unavailable due to child care issues and lack of training options. No person grows up wanting to be on welfare, she said.

Dominque’s Story

Dominque is a small businessman. He said he struggles to make ends meet and uses government programs such as SNAP from time to time. Dominique said SNAP benefits are not enough and that trying to live on food stamps is very difficult. He added that the $112 monthly amount he receives in food stamps leads to unhealthy eating habits. Dominique said county assistance workers do not fully understand programs and are often unable to convey details about how programs can help.

Mental Health Association of Northwestern Pennsylvania – July 16, 2019

Senate Democratic staff conducted the follow-up interviews at the Mental Health Association of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Michelle’s

There were many facets to Michelle’s struggles with poverty. A former drug user, she often faced homelessness and rehabilitation. In time, she said she was able to acquire poverty-pay jobs at Walmart and as a personal care attendant. Michelle said she was discriminated against in seeking housing and had fears for her personal security.

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Michelle said that over the years she wanted to work more, but, because she used programs driven by income guidelines, she feared exceeding limits. She said mental health issues impeded her search for housing and contributed to bouts of homelessness.

She noted that she now has strong support networks to help her, and that she relies on friends and her church to navigate poverty issues. Michelle suggested that more communication about programs would greatly help people dealing with poverty. She said some excellent programs are underutilized because there is a dearth of information.

Devin’s Story

Devin’s story is punctuated by bouts of homelessness. He was born and raised in New York and was in and out of homeless situations for many years. Devin said he moved to Erie where homeless shelters were more accommodating and provided help.

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He sought to get his own footing and became determined to help others. He started volunteering for non- profit organizations, later securing a paid position with them. In moving to Erie, he was able to find work; however, work threatened his eligibility to receive benefits.

Devin began his journey of navigating government benefit programs and systems when he arrived Erie. His work for the non-profit is fulfilling and he has learned a great deal and finds helping others rewarding.

Robert’s Story

Robert worked in automobile reupholstering in high school but dropped out his junior year. He then lost his job and faced homelessness. Eventually, Robert was able to find a house, but had to leave Erie to go help his son, who suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his military service.

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Robert returned to the area but was homeless. In seeking help from a variety of agencies, he said he was frustrated by the bureaucracy and difficulties in securing long-term help. Robert said state government assistance is not effective and public transportation issues are a continual problem.

Despite his struggles, Robert said non-profits and churches are excellent resources. While government offers access to services, he said there are many roadblocks. Government programs are not as simple as opening doors and applying for help. Churches, he said, had open doors.