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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pennsylvania's Three Rivers Center for Independent Living Stops Disability Assistance Programs

About 900 people living with disabilities in Allegheny, Armstrong and Westmoreland counties (in Pennsylvania) are being forced to find new service providers as a federally funded nonprofit organization abruptly discontinues programs.

article by NATASHA LINDSTROM for TribLive | Aug. 22, 2016
Federal and state officials — some of whom said they are still in the dark about the specifics of the nonprofit's situation — are scrambling to develop a plan to find alternatives for people who receive assistance from the cash-strapped Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit founded in 1988 to remove barriers for individuals with disabilities.
The center's stated top goal is “to empower people with disabilities to lead meaningful and self-directed lives” through programs such as peer counseling, computer training and advocacy work.
Three Rivers Center put its former office on Rebecca Avenue in Wilkinsburg up for sale more than a year ago and around February vacated the property for space on Pennsylvania Avenue in the North Side.
Christine Phillips, spokeswoman for the federal Administration for Community Living, confirmed that Three Rivers Center “voluntarily relinquished” a significant portion of its federal funding.
“We're all eagerly working to make sure that independent living services continue to be provided uninterrupted,” said Matt Seeley, executive director of the Pennsylvania Statewide Independent Living Council, an independent body run by a governor-appointed board. “It's going to be a little difficult because this really just popped up.”
If Three Rivers Center closes Administration for Community Living — which Seeley expects to happen in the near future — it would be the first federally designated Center for Independent Living to fold in the 30-year history of the program in Pennsylvania. None of the state's remaining 17 centers are in dire financial straits, Seeley said.
“We saw problems, but you never expect this,” Seeley said, declining to elaborate.
Income reported by Three Rivers Center has plummeted in recent years, from $29 million in 2011 to $7.5 million in 2013, while the nonprofit went from boasting a $6.4 million surplus to grappling with a $1.6 million deficit, the latest available Internal Revenue Service records show.
Expenses fell from $23 million to $9.2 million over the same period, as the organization turned to layoffs and other cost-saving measures.
The administrators and board members who run the nonprofit have kept mostly quiet about the center's woes, not only to the public but to overseers. Seeley called that a “disappointment,” noting that two other centers previously had sought and received help.
Seeley said the financial issues are being addressed “now, after the fact and from the outside, rather than before they were a problem.”
He added that he found out about the service disruptions only because other providers and affected people called in.
“I was not contacted directly from TRCIL and still have not been,” Seeley said.
More than three dozen current and former employees and board members of the Three Rivers Center declined to comment or could not be reached, including current Executive Director Rachel Rogan and prior CEOs Stanley Holbrook and Leah Gray. Holbrook made $110,142 in 2013, IRS records show.
As of Monday, Three Rivers Center's website was offline, and its advertised hotline was disconnected. A woman who answered the door Monday at both the Wilkinsburg and North Side locations refused to comment and asked a Tribune-Review reporter to leave the properties.
Participants received an “Important Notice” letter dated Aug. 9 from Rogan and Joshua Hovanec, the center's director of waiver services, that said the Board of Directors had “decided to reduce business operations within the Waiver Service Department” and that the center no longer would be providing “service coordination in your area” as of Sept. 8.
“It is our sincere hope that TRCIL Services Inc. provided you with a quality Service Coordination experience and that we assisted you in leading your life with fewer barriers and more independence,” the letter concluded.
Independent living centers based in neighboring counties have stepped up to help, but that may mean longer drives for people seeking services.
“The 900 consumers... have already begun reaching out to several (Centers for Independent Living) in the surrounding region,” said Chad Underkoffler, spokesman for Tri-County Patriots for Independent Living in Washington, Pa., which primarily serves Washington, Greene and Fayette counties.
Tom Franz, director of Disability Options Network's Center for Independent Living in New Castle, noted that “county borders do not necessarily limit” his 10-employee nonprofit's ability to serve clients.
He said his staff welcomes calls from individuals seeking assistance who may be outside their usual territory, which includes Lawrence, Mercer, Beaver and Butler counties.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer.
The Pennsylvania Statewide Independent Living Council, online at pasilc.org, is exploring what can be done to provide support quickly to consumers in the three affected counties. For more information, contact them at (717) 364-1732 or email to info@pasilc.org

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