Federal sequester cuts hit home for local anti-poverty agencies
By Olga Peters / As published in the April 17, 2013 issue of The Commons
BRATTLEBORO—Local nonprofits receiving federal funds are reviewing their budgets in response to the federal sequester, saying what started as an across-the-board 5 percent spending cut could thrust greater numbers into poverty.
Steve Geller, executive director of Southern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), said local organizations such as SEVCA “catch people in the nick of time” before they become homeless.
Cutting services for people in poverty promotes unnecessary suffering and costs taxpayers more money over time, said Geller, who called the sequester cuts “incredibly shortsighted.”
“They’re [Congress] looking at the silo and not the whole sequence of consequences,” he said of the sequester’s potential long-term effects.
According to Geller, SEVCA has received word the federal funding it receives for Head Start — a federal block grant that supports emergency family outreach workers and emergency home repairs — will be cut.
Geller estimates that SEVCA stands to lose $100,000 over the sequester.
“We consider it a lot,” said Geller. “That hurts for us to have to say that.”
Not all of SEVCA’s $7 million budget comes from federal sources. Still, the 5 percent cuts could translate into 100 to 200 households going without critical services.
Geller said the cuts are not huge in one area alone, but overall, “they erode our ability to provide quality services and meet demands.”
According to Geller, the community action agency is analyzing the budget cuts, their effect on services, and how the agency will respond.
With what information he has at this early stage, Geller estimates that, absent additional funds, some 35 to 50 families stand to go without emergency housing assistance this year. This program helps people in danger of eviction remain in place or move to another stable situation.
In Windsor County, which SEVCA also serves, the sequester could lead to the dismantling of one Head Start classroom serving 17 children, said Geller.
As the sequester’s effects ripple, SEVCA faces reductions in outreach office hours, number of people served, number of staffers in the micro-business program, and other payroll.
The agency is trying to determine the best way to absorb the reductions while protecting the most services, Geller said.
In the previous fiscal year, SEVCA served 6,300 households in Windham and Windsor counties, or about 14,000 individuals.
The agency’s services included emergency heating fuel, emergency housing, crisis resolution, continued disaster recovery services following Tropical Storm Irene, home weatherization, and tax preparation.
Worst to come?
Geller said his major concern is that these cuts might be the first volley in what he said he feared could be “a larger battle against the poor.”
The 5 percent sequester cuts follow in the footsteps of previous cuts or level-funding over several years, he said. Those dollars cover fewer services, while the cost of living only increases.
Not all the cuts will happen simultaneously, Geller said. The sequester cuts could span different fiscal years depending on how the federal government awarded the grants — some federal grants are awarded in chunks over two years, for example.
The 5 percent cuts, or the estimated $100,000, at SEVCA only pertain to federal fiscal year 2013, which runs October to September, Geller explained.
Geller said he fears that the cuts will continue ramping up in 2014. Head Start programs could see an 8 percent cut, for example.
“It’s a snowball effect,” he said. “We’re nervous about how each piece could feed off each other and create a bigger impact.”
Meanwhile, Geller said SEVCA saw a 15 percent increase in demand for services over the previous year as more people with jobs, including families with both parents working full- or part-time, had reached out for services.
That speaks to an increase in people’s desperation in the wake of the 2008 recession, he said. People hold out less hope for finding jobs and opportunities.
More people stand on the edge of homelessness, he said. Meanwhile, the sequester will hit funding for homelessness prevention.
Geller said the situation is frustrating, as it costs less to prevent homelessness than to pull a family out of homelessness, where many lose the wind from their sails. “It’s a better use of funds,” he said, adding that in his view the sequester is Congress’ “colossal blunder.”
“Time will judge if this [sequester] is an anomaly or the new normal,” he said.
Geller has served more than eight years as executive director at SEVCA. Before that, he served 18 years at a Community Action agency in Portsmouth, N.H., and in Massachusetts before that.
He described funding in his long experience as cycling up and down, and that he wouldn’t “hit the panic button yet,” but this year’s fiscal stalemate strikes him as distressing and discouraging.
“But I’m always hopeful,” Geller said.
Innovation during tough times
The 29-bed Morningside Shelter, which receives a “significant amount” of funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, also faces a hit in October, at the start of the 2014 federal fiscal year, reports executive director Joshua Davis.
Morningside, founded in 1979, is the only homeless shelter in southeastern Vermont, and specializes in housing placement with ongoing staff support and life skills development for both families and individuals.
Davis has served as the shelter’s executive director for a year and been affiliated with the organization more than three years. How the cuts will affect services there is unknown, Davis says. Morningside staff are in the middle of their budgeting process.
Davis is also watching the shelter’s Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG), a state-administered grant funded with federal money that helps pay for the shelter’s daily operating costs, including heating fuel.
Although the ESG is safe for now, Davis says he anticipates Morningside will feel a greater financial pinch later this year or early next.
Vermont previously kicked in extra money for social programs to cover shortfalls in federal funding, said Davis. The state, however, may tighten its belt too.
For example, he said, the legislature is considering a five-year cap on Reach Up, a Vermont Department for Children and Families program. Vermonters traditionally remain in this program as long as needed, according to Davis.
Under such a funding cap, proposed to take effect April 2014, 40 Windham County families would lose support immediately, Davis predicted. He said Morningside already averages a waiting list of 30 to 50 households.
Records show that this year, as of March 31, the shelter fielded requests for services from 114 households, and of those was able to serve 43 adults and 14 children.
Davis says he has seen a general trend of more young families seeking beds in the shelter. The bulk of the people walking through the door are unemployed or underemployed: People working at fast food restaurants or motels, for example, usually only work 20 hours a week. If they’re full-time, they might pull in $9 an hour.
Davis says that according to data he’s seen, $18 an hour is a more realistic living wage for Vermont.
“It just doesn’t add up,” he said.
Organizations such as Morningside, the Brattleboro Housing Authority, and SEVCA are part of a system that helps people get back on their feet, said Davis.
Over the past three years that Davis has been affiliated with Morningside, however, he has seen the BHA’s waiting list grow longer.
“People aren’t moving,” he said.
Without jobs or other forms of financial support, Davis added, “people will cycle down, not up.”
Services in this area are already stretched thin, he said. To do more with less, Morningside has diversified its fundraising efforts. The shelter partners with other agencies to fill gaps.
Organizations must act efficiently with what resources they have and work together, he said. Getting out of organizational silos is difficult because nonprofits often operated at “a breakneck pace.”
One such innovative collaboration between Morningside and Youth Services, Inc., is the Youth Shelter Collaborative, which is geared toward sheltering homeless youth. Morningside leases a four-bedroom apartment in Brattleboro, while Youth Services provides a live-in residential manager.
The collaborative allows Morningside and Youth Services to create a shelter space for less than it takes the state to house people in hotels as a temporary shelter, Davis said.
Rural homelessness is harder to see compared to homelessness in urban areas, but it exists nonetheless, he said.
“It’s hard to appreciate the number of people teetering on the edge,” Davis said.
Homelessness and poverty are community issues, he said: “What do we want to do about it?”
Drop In Center, Morningside Shelter team up on fundraiser
By Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
BRATTLEBORO—Weather permitting, the Brattleboro Emergency Overflow Shelter at the First Baptist Church will be closing for the season in mid-April.
For the people who use the shelter, that closing date means the start of the second season of homelessness and another six months of sleeping in cars, in tents, or on friends’ couches.
Lucie Fortier, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, says that as Morningside Shelter is at full capacity with a significant waiting list year-round, the Overflow Shelter is the only option, particularly for homeless people struggling with alcohol or drug problems.
“There is a real need for a year-round ‘damp’ shelter,” Fortier said, referring to Morningside’s prohibition of alcohol use, and the Overflow Shelter’s policy of toleration.
But Fortier was quick to point out that more families are coming to the Overflow Shelter, and it is not really a place for children to stay. However, when a family is out of options and cannot get into Morningside, Fortier said she will take them in.
As of Jan. 31, the last time a formal census was taken, Fortier said 128 people had used the Overflow Shelter in the 2012-13 season. By the time she does the next headcount, she said that number will easily be higher than the 133 who used the shelter in the 2011-12 season.
That’s why the Drop In Center and Morningside Shelter are teaming up on a fundraiser that they’re calling “Camp for a Common Cause.” It seeks to call attention to the extent of homelessness in the Brattleboro area, and to help area people make it through the second season of homelessness.
All are invited to camp out on the Brattleboro Common to raise money to be split evenly between the two organizations. Campers are encouraged to raise $100 or more for the effort, then pitch a tent the night of Friday, May 3, to camp out on the Common. The goal for this event is to raise a collective $20,000.
Peter “Fish” Case, the morning host on WKVT-FM, will lead the charge onto the Common and help raise awareness during a day-long broadcast. The event will come to a close the following morning with a breakfast on the Common that will be open to the community and will act as an additional means to raise funds.
Telling their stories
During a Monday morning news conference at the Overflow Shelter, Fortier, Morningside Shelter executive director Josh Davis, and the Rev. Suzanne Andrews, pastor of First Baptist Church, were joined by four men who have been helped by the Drop In Center and the Overflow Shelter and told their stories.
Ferris Cathey grew up in New York City and did two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. He said he managed to find steady work after the war, and ended up Brattleboro working for Northeast Cooperatives (now United Natural Foods). But alcoholism fueled a downward spiral he could not break out of.
“I lost everything, and I mean everything — my job, my home, my car, my marriage,” he said.
He credits the Drop In Center for helping to straighten him out.
“I got tired of it all and went to the Drop In Center and said I didn’t want to do this anymore,” Cathey said. “I’ve been clean ever since.”
Now, he works as a receptionist at the Drop In Center and does some part-time cleaning work.
“I was there,” said Cathey, pointing to a spot on the floor in the shelter where he used to sleep. “Now I got my own place, but I wouldn’t have anything now without the Drop In Center.”
Kevin Regan also struggles with alcoholism. He said his life started out “fine and dandy until I started drinking.” By his 40s, he also hit bottom and went into detox.
Regan said he was in a homeless shelter in Springfield, Mass., right after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. “I ran into someone there and they told me to come up to Brattleboro to the Drop In Center. I’ve been here ever since.”
He said he works downtown, shoveling sidewalks in the winter and doing other odd jobs for merchants during other months. “Brattleboro is a wonderful town,” he said. “I love the people here.”
Victoro Johnson said he grew up in Newfane and enlisted in the Marines out of high school. He fought in the first Gulf War in 1991, and said his health rapidly deteriorated after that. He ended up in the Overflow Shelter. Now, he is a volunteer at the shelter and the Drop In Center “to give back what they gave to me.”
The last man who spoke, identifying himself as F.E.H., has been homeless off and on since the 1980s. The first time was by choice, when he decided to live in a cave for three years. “I was never more at peace than I was in that cave,” he said.
He didn’t get into detail about the subsequent times he was homeless, but said that he landed at the Overflow Shelter three years ago. He said he gets by picking up lost change off the sidewalk and “by the grace of God.”
Need keeps growing
Davis pointed out that about three-quarters of the people his shelter serves list Vermont as their last permanent address. While Brattleboro is known as a relatively compassionate town, he said that the whole region has a responsibility to take care of those in need.
“This is a community issue,” Davis said, “and we need to work together to take care of all our community members.”
Fortier said budget cuts on the state and federal level are “definitely having an impact” on the increased numbers of clients at Morningside and the Drop In Center. “The lack of jobs here isn’t helping either,” she added.
The Overflow Shelter has been open at First Baptist during the winter months since 2007, and Rev. Andrews admits that she has seen some members of her congregation leave her church because of the shelter.
“This is one of our most important missions,” she said. “I’m proud and honored that our homeless come here, and humbled to be a part of this.”
“We have people who have jobs, but don’t make enough money to pay rent,” said Fortier of her clients. “There are human stories behind someone who becomes homeless, and many of us are only a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. We need to remember that they are human beings and should be treated with respect. That’s why we want to get their stories out.”
To register to Camp for a Common Cause, visit the online fundraising page at www.firstgiving.com/MorningsideShelter/Camp-for-a-Common-Cause
As posted on the Vermont Housing Finance Agency Housing Matters Blog
Posted Mar 22, 2013 at 9:45 am by Leslie Black-Plumeau
Robin Howe knows how to stretch a dollar. Howe, VHFA’s Multifamily Operations Specialist, worked to turn a one dollar public relations campaign into a $2,590 gift to a homeless shelter in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Ms. Howe worked during the month of February to raise funds for the Morningside Shelter after she learned about a project in which “Change the World” was written on 100 one dollar bills and handed to 100 people. The only instruction was to think about ways to change the world. Howe explained that “the project really got me thinking about what I could do to make a difference… it was a no-brainer when I saw the temperatures plummeting and thought about homeless shelters reaching their capacity.”
She reached out to colleagues, family and friends and quickly raised the sizeable donation. “I am extremely grateful to everyone who contributed,” Howe remarked, “and particularly astounded at the generosity of the employees at Commonwealth Dairy” whose donations were then matched by the Brattleboro-based yogurt company itself.
Morningside Shelter operates at full capacity year-round, which includes 29 beds and two full-time programs for community members considered homeless but not staying at the shelter. Additionally, two apartments at the shelter are designed for permanent housing for formerly homeless individuals.
The shelter works collaboratively with area non-profit and public agencies to help people connect to a wide range of services including: job training and placement, medical and mental health treatment, family and substance abuse counseling, budget management, nutrition, health education, parenting and child care services, and assistance in identifying and qualifying for affordable housing opportunities.
Joshua Davis, Morningside’s Executive Director, explained that “Robin’s idea – to amplify the impact a dollar bill could make– quickly raised impressive contributions for shelter… especially in our current economic climate, we are extremely thankful for the generosity of those who donate to support our mission and work.”
The Brattleboro Interfaith Clergy Association is joining with organizations serving the homeless in Windham County to mark the National Day of the Homeless Person. This candlelight vigil will be held along with hundreds of others around the nation, Friday, December 21st, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. In Brattleboro it will begin at Pliny Park on Main Street at 4pm and end next door in the shelter for the homeless in the First Baptist Church. The purpose of the vigil is to commemorate the lives of the mothers or fathers, sons or daughters who died on our streets or in our emergency shelters from illness or conditions directly related to their homelessness. Each year people die on the streets of Vermont for lack of shelter. A recent report of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency finds homeless families or families at risk of becoming homeless with children increased by 52 percent in one year. Homeless with children make up for 35 percent of the homeless. The length of time people are homeless has increased over the past five years. All those statistics also highlight the relationship of employment and health issues to people's housing.
Everyone is encouraged to participate in this brief program which will include representatives of the faith communities along with Lucie Fortier, Director of the Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center, Tom Appel of the Home At Last program for homeless veterans, and Libby Bennett from the Morningside Shelter. Andy Davis will lead a volunteer choir of voices who are invited to practice at 3:30pm at the Centre Church. Candles will be provided to everyone for the walk in the darkness to the shelter, mirroring both the plight of the homeless and the welcome light of the shelter provided. For more information call Lise Sparrow at 257-2776 or email email@example.com.
As published in the Brattleboro Reformer
Monday October 8, 2012
HINSDALE, N.H. -- Martin Leggott took his weekly hike up Mt. Wantastiquet Saturday morning.
But the Brattleboro resident was doing more than getting in some training for ski season.
"It’s for a great cause," Leggott said.
He was one of many who arrived at Wantastiquet Saturday to raise money for Brattleboro’s Morningside Shelter, which provides housing, referrals and other services for the homeless.
It was the second year for what shelter administrators call the "Hike for the Homeless."
"It was such a success (in 2011), we said we had to do it again," said Josh Davis, Morningside’s executive director.
This year proved to be even bigger success. Standing at Wantastiquet’s Mountain Road trail head less than an hour after the event began, Davis reported that the hike already had raised more than $15,000 -- $4,000 more than in 2011.
The hike also benefited from more than 20 sponsors, and Libby Bennett -- Morningside’s development coordinator -- had compiled a list of in-kind contributors as well.
"We have had an incredible response from the community," Bennett said. "We’ve heard from people and businesses we didn’t even contact."
Hikers were asked to raise at least $50. For teams, the suggested minimum was set at $250.
Participants could trek to the summit of Wantastiquet or walk along the river trail at its base, and they could start anytime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Organizers said staggered starting times would help protect the mountain’s ecology.
Davis said the fundraiser, though relatively new, is critically important for the only year-round homeless shelter in southeastern Vermont. Morningside has 29 beds, but that does not meet the need in this area.
"We’re at capacity all the time," he said. "We have a waiting list now at about 50 people."
Davis noted that this time of year, as colder weather arrives, brings a spike in the number of people seeking shelter.
He also said there are many who, while not technically homeless, are "precariously housed" and may need assistance.
"There are also people in cars, in tents, in friends’ houses," he said. "It’s not the same as in an urban area."
A donation of $35 gives one person shelter and "comprehensive case management services for one night’s stay at Morningside, administrators said. A $100 contribution provides those same services for a family.
For more information contact Libby Bennett at 802-257-0066 x101 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Morningside would like to thank the sponsors of this year’s Hike:
For more information on how your organization can support Morningside Shelter with a sponsorship contribution, please contact Libby Bennett (see contact information above).
As published in the Brattleboro Reformer
New executive director Josh Davis at Morningside Shelter in Brattleboro.
(Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Tuesday September 11, 2012
BRATTLEBORO -- The Morningside Shelter Board of Directors has named Joshua Davis as the new executive director.
Davis, a graduate of World Learning SIT Graduate Institute, has been serving as the interim director since former director Paul Capcara stepped down in March.
When he arrived at SIT in 2008 he imagined himself traveling on to work with an organization somewhere else in the world.
But after learning more about Brattleboro and about the groups that are doing their work around the area, he saw an opportunity to serve and jumped at the chance to work at Morningside.
"I went to SIT to work with low income people either here, or abroad," Davis said. "This organization does something that is so necessary and vital to the community, and we do it in a compassionate and dignified way. I'm very happy to be a part of it."
Morningside Shelter is Brattleboro's largest year-round shelter which provides housing, and housing services, to the homeless in southeastern Vermont.
The shelter has 29 beds.
Davis started at Morningside as a volunteer cook for the community meals program.
He became an overnight case manager in 2010 and then served on the Board of Directors starting in 2011.
Morningside Board President Biz Dana said the board was impressed with his education and background, as well as the commitment he has shown to the organization.
"Josh was selected based on his unique experience with Morningside as well as his organizational development experience," she said.
After graduating from SIT, Davis worked as an AmeriCorps member with Post Oil Solutions, working on the group's food security issues.
He went on to work as a staff member at Meeting Waters YMCA and says he has been impressed with the collaboration that goes on around Windham County, and across Vermont, between organizations.
As director of Morningside Shelter, Davis works closely with the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, Brattleboro Housing Authority, the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust and a variety of state agencies.
"I am going to do my best to strengthen those ties," he said. "Our success ties into their success, as well. Homelessness is not something that one agency is going to be able to solve."
Morningside opened its newest expansion apartments in 2010 and Davis said the organization is now working to maintain funding and help the people who do end up at the shelter.
There are currently about 50 people on the waiting list even before the usual spike that occurs when the winter weather hits.
The group's largest fundraiser of the year, Hike for the Homelessness, takes place on Oct. 6, and Davis said Morningside has just been admitted into Benchmarks for a Better Vermont, a group that works with nonprofit organizations to help them evaluate their systems and goals.
With state and federal funding mostly remaining stable, but the need continuing to grow, Davis said he is going to work with the staff and the board to make sure the people who come through Morningside get the care and services they need.
"I have been able to see this organization from multiple levels and I know the staff and the board are dedicated to everyone who is staying here," Davis said. "The people who are here are trying hard. They do everything they can and sometimes they still end up at Morningside. We want to support them through that process and I want to be a part of that."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.