News & Events

The Leaky Tap and the Butterfly Wing

People often talk about how social change can start with the single flutter of a butterfly’s wing: one little thing can lead to a chain reaction of massive change. At UESF, but we have our own butterfly’s wing: a single drip from a tap.

We got our start back in 1983 with a contract to coordinate grants for low-income utility customers in Philadelphia. Essentially, if you are poor and get behind on your electric, gas, oil, or water bill, the public utilities are legally obligated to help. They are “public” because they exist for the greater good, and we all benefit when everybody has working utilities in their homes.

The utility companies realized they needed a single coordinator for these disparate programs, and so UESF was started to be the coordinating agency. In fact, that’s what UESF stands for: Utility Emergency Services Fund.

But today, we call ourselves UESF (you-sef), and here’s why.

The more time we spent helping people get these grants, the more we saw that issues with utilities were not just a result of being low-income. They are a leading indicator of a cascade of problems in a household that, if left unaddressed, will lead to eviction and homelessness. And in turn, homelessness for one household, if left unaddressed, leads to over stressed, unhealthy communities.

Say a family has a slow leak from a tap. They aren’t able to fix it in time, and the leak leads to a high water bill. Because the bill is high, the family isn’t able to pay it. Perhaps the leak causes water damage to a ceiling or floor, or both. Soon a bath or a bedroom becomes unusable. Without a working bath, a child might attract attention at school. She stops going, because she’s embarrassed. As the house becomes increasingly unlivable, the family leaves. But with utility arrearages, they aren’t eligible for a lease elsewhere. The children bounce from school to school as the family tries to find a stable place to live. The kids fall behind in academics, and just like the parents looking at the water bill, they wonder how they can ever catch up.

But to us, that leaky tap is a chance to change.  We saw that just providing a utility grant year after year was never going to change poverty itself in any real way. And so starting around 2007, we began to transform ourselves into an organization that works alongside Philadelphia families to transform their own lives. We began offering a holistic suite of benefits, and a practice we call “No Wrong Door.” This means that whatever brings you to UESF –whether it’s your water bill, being a homeless veteran, having a child in the school district, or anything else –we will help you get every possible form of help that you qualify for.

Today we offer a host of programs, some aimed at specific communities, like veterans or school district families, and some aimed at specific problems, like plumbing repairs. We partner with a range of organizations and city agencies, and we are learning and growing fast.

We’ll be talking more about our transformation in the posts to come, and we’ll also be writing about UESF’s model for integrity and learning. We’re glad you are with us.