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New signs on building in Pennsylvania show what’s going on inside

When Pennsylvania Secretary of Human Services Valerie Arkoosh first walked into her new office 18 months ago, she noticed something odd. The sign outside the building identified it as the Health and Welfare Building, the former name of the Department of Human Services.

Before 2014, the department was known as the Department of Public Welfare. It was the last department in the country to use the word welfare.

Arkoosh set to work changing the building’s name, and her mission was completed Wednesday with the unveiling of plaques on the Health and Human Services Building at 625 Forster Street in Harrisburg.

“This name change is more than just a sign on the wall, but a tangible symbol of lifting up the people we serve and working to fulfill that mission every day in everything we do,” Arkoosh said. “Renaming this building to better reflect our mission and our work shows that Pennsylvania is modernizing and, importantly, recognizing that words really do matter.”

A plaque on the front of the Health and Human Services building.

The change reflects the broader scope of what’s happening in the building. The Department of Human Services is not only responsible for benefits like SNAP and Medicaid, it also handles foster care, child development, elder care and mental health services.

“Removing the word wellness, which has conjured negative stereotypes and false narratives for decades, is just one of our many efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding vulnerable Pennsylvanians,” Arkoosh said.

The building also houses the Department of Health, and Secretary of Health Debra Bogen helped unveil a new plaque in the building’s exterior. Signage throughout the building, the mailing address and the online presence have also been updated.

The Health and Human Services Building was built in 1955 and housed the two departments for nearly 70 years. During the pandemic, staff used the building to help create policy, even as most Pennsylvanians worked from home.

Arkoosh took a moment at the end of her speech on Wednesday to reflect on the site on which the building sits.

The Pennsylvania Capitol Complex was built on what is known as the “Old 8th Ward” in Harrisburg. The land was previously a neighborhood that housed black, Jewish, and immigrant communities. The neighborhood was demolished as the Capitol complex grew to include state buildings.

Arkoosh used the country’s history to acknowledge structural racism and said her office is working to break down barriers to human services in Pennsylvania.

“While we can officially cross the building’s new name off the list, we know there’s much more to accomplish,” Arkoosh said. “This name is much more than just a name. It’s about caring for that spirit to ensure we acknowledge the history, acknowledge the present, and work together to build a better future for every Pennsylvanian.”

Employees from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Department of Human Services pose with a new plaque in front of the building.
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