ADDISON COUNTY — Addison County human services providers are using superlatives these days in describing the state of food and fuel assistance resources available for needy families.
Only in this case, the superlatives are being used in a negative sense.
“I have been here 10 years, and it has never been nearly this bad,” Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) Executive Director Jeanne Montross said on Monday in describing the emptiness of her agency’s emergency food shelf.
The still-sluggish economy and a slow job market have forced many Addison County residents to increasingly rely on local food shelves and other social services to make ends meet. And demand remained strong this year even during the summer months, when human services officials usually report an easing of requests for assistance.
Montross on Monday shook her head as she gazed at the barren shelves at HOPE’s food shelf on Boardman Street.
“We are seeing lots of new faces,” she said. “A lot of people that were solidly working, taking care of themselves, a lot of people who used to donate here are suddenly needing our services.”
Montross said an average of 441 people representing a combined total of 162 Addison County households used the HOPE food shelf each month during the quarter of July 1 to Sept. 30 of 2009. With still a week left during that same quarter of 2010, the HOPE food shelf has served a monthly average of 480 people representing 188 households.
“That (number) is going to be higher, because the first two weeks of the month there is much less use than the last two weeks of the month,” Montross said. “I am sure we are going to break 500 people per month served this quarter, and possibly 200 households. This is just amazing.”
Leaders of Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (ACA/CVOEO) reported a similar surge in use at that agency’s food shelf off Middlebury’s Exchange Street.
Deb Goodrich, community services worker for ACA/CVOEO, said an average of 180 households per month visited the food shelf last winter. She called that the “highest average ever.” And the news didn’t get better as the months got warmer. The ACA/CVOEO food shelf served an average of 183 households and 187 households, respectively, this past July and August. That’s up from 115 and 120 households, respectively, in July and August of 2009.
“A lot of these families are new families that have never used the services before,” Goodrich said, echoing Montross’s observation at HOPE.
Jan Demers is executive director of Burlington-based CVOEO. She surveyed ACA last Friday and made note of a “steady stream” of clients entering the food shelf.
“From what I understand, food shelf use in Addison County is at an all-time high,” Demers said.
On the bright side, Demers acknowledged that needy families with children younger than 18 years old did receive some extra help this summer. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program funneled some supplemental food to qualifying families with children, so they could stock up. But that TANF benefit expires at the end of this month, according to Demers.
News doesn’t get better headed into next month.
The Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) announced this month that 3SquaresVT benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) will be lower for around 16,000 households statewide starting Oct. 1. This lower benefit results from a federally required change to the standard deduction that households can claim for fuel and utilities, lowering it from $744 to $614 per month.
Every year, states are required by the Food and Nutrition Service — the federal regulatory agency for 3SquaresVT — to review heating and cooling prices and to adjust their standard deduction for fuel and utilities accordingly. In October 2008, historically high fuel prices led to a sharp increase in the standard deduction, from $572 to $744 per month. This translated into higher food benefits for many households. The new standard deduction reflects current fuel costs, which are considerably lower. The average cost of a gallon of fuel oil in 2008 was approximately $4. In 2010, that amount is $2.66.
In July, there were 1,762 households (3,666 people) in Addison County receiving 3SquaresVT benefits, according to Montross. The average benefit was $114 per person for the month. Some get as little as $10, she said.
HEATING AID FALLS, TOO
Meanwhile, it appears as though state and federal heating fuel aid benefits will be less than last year because of two factors. First, the Vermont Agency of Human Services, or AHS, has decided to broaden the eligibility standards for the state’s Crisis and Seasonal fuel aid programs, both of which are replenished each year through the federal Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP. The AHS has decided this year that households may gross up to 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline (up to $3,401 monthly for a family of four) to qualify for the Seasonal fuel aid program, and a more generous 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline for the Crisis fuel aid program. Prior to this year, the agency used lower net-income thresholds, with various deductions.
Richard Moffi, fuel assistance program chief for the DCF, said broadening the eligibility threshold for the programs will allow an estimated 27,600 Vermonters to qualify this year, compared to the roughly 20,350 citizens served by the Crisis and Seasonal heating fuel aid last year.
“We are looking at roughly a 36-percent increase in our core base-load of clients,” Moffi said.
The Seasonal and Crisis programs make subsidy payments to heating fuel dealers from November through April. Folks must apply by the end of February. More information on the program can be found at http://dcf.vermont.gov/esd/fuel_assistance, or by calling 1-800-479-6151.
Complicating matters, Moffi noted, is that Congress has still not settled on how much it will appropriate for the LIHEAP. The U.S. House is proposing $5.1 billion, which would result in Vermont receiving the same federal allotment it has received during the past two years: $25.6 million.
But the U.S. Senate and the Obama administration have proposed $3.2 billion in LIHEAP money, which would cut Vermont’s share to $16.2 million, according to Moffi.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].