As federal and state policies effectively have three in four Americans staying home to slow down the spread of coronavirus, holes have begun to form in the safety net that protects vulnerable populations.
Societal ills don’t go away just because most people are stuck inside. Lamoille County social service organizations are adapting to make sure the people they serve don’t slip through the widening cracks.
Greg Stefanski of Capstone Community Action is working with other human services organizations to set up an “incident command center” to get everyone operating efficiently as possible, adopting the mindset of first responders. (See related, p.1)
For many people, the idea of “stay home, stay safe” carries a cruel irony. Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux says the homeless shelter in Hyde Park village operated by Lamoille Community House is scheduled to shut down April 15. The organization is looking for ways to serve homeless people beyond that.
“There are a lot of plans, but they don’t come with money,” he said. “So, you have to go with the plan that can actually be implemented.”
Daniel Franklin, executive director of North Central Vermont Recovery Center, paraphrased journalist Johann Hari, who once gave a TED talk on addiction.
“He said, ‘the opposite of addiction is connection,” and that’s never been truer, Franklin said.
Connections are not easy in a crisis that requires people to stay away from each other, though. And Franklin said the recovery center staff has already seen the effects of people being disconnected.
“We’ve had people who have overdosed and people have experienced relapses and setbacks who had a while under their belt, and that’s really heartbreaking,” he said. “This is one of the worst things that could have happened.”
Franklin said staff and coaches have done “walk and talks” outside while maintaining physical distance, but for some people trying to battle substance use, the loss of group AA meetings and other get-togethers are tough to adjust to.
Franklin said the recovery center might actually learn better ways to reach certain people, once the coronavirus crisis passes. Morristown and some of the other midsized towns in Lamoille County have social services, but truly small towns also have people struggling with substance use. He said the crisis is making the center think about how to get into the most rural parts of the county.
“It’s helping us be cognizant of the gaps in our own services,” he said.
All of the center’s staff members are available by phone and email, and the center has switched to Zoom teleconference meetings for meetings like SMART Recovery, Daily Recovery Connections and Women’s AA.
Franklin said a lot of people don’t have smartphones or computers, and they might be left out of the “tele-health” services. But he and the staff, as well as the tight-knit human services network in the Lamoille County area, are working to get people basic access.
“All that being said, whether it is recovery coaching or meetings online, I think it’s going to start humbly and grow and grow and grow,” he said Tuesday. “We had one group yesterday with two people and today it was six, and who knows how many it will be tomorrow.”
Funds roll into United Way
Whatever the United Way of Lamoille County was working on a couple of weeks ago has been dropped temporarily so it can concentrate fully on helping people affected by the virus crisis.
“We shut down (the actual office) right away and we are small enough that we could,” said executive director Jim Curran. “We ripped the Band-Aid off and that focused us on being able to do other stuff.”
That included establishing a COVID-19 Response Fund on March 20, which within a week raised over $20,000, all from individual donations. Curran said $10,000 of that came in the first 48 hours. He said donations ranged from $25 to $3,000. There were some matching challenges that were met so quickly he didn’t have time to post them online.
Curran said he and his staff have received calls about needs ranging from internet bills so kids can keep up with school to rent and utilities.
United Way and other service organizations have formed task forces to address such things as housing and how to cover the basic needs of the people most vulnerable to COVID-19.
This week, Curran said United Way will start tapping into the response fund, and will have a link to application forms on its website, uwlamoille.org.
It remains to be seen how the coronavirus affects the organization itself. The $20,000 in donations can go toward people availing themselves of United Way services, but can’t be used to pay its employees. Luckily, Curran said, “we have a pretty solid donor base.”
“We are all adapting, since it is challenging to continue to serve while social distancing,” Curran said.