‘Challenges’ funds aim to transform social services

MIDDLEBURY — “Challenges for Change” has largely been portrayed as an effort by the Douglas administration and the 2010 Legislature to save $38 million in state spending by making government programs more lean and efficient.
And while the new directive has sent many public entities scrambling to make deep cuts, a few enterprising nonprofits are poised to receive some budget increases for some innovative programs that could help the state save more money in the long run to meet the Challenges goal.
Among the Challenges beneficiaries are the Addison County Housing Coalition (ACHC) and the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC). They are in line to receive $200,000 each in limited Challenges for Change-related grant money for new programs aimed at delivering cheaper affordable housing and mental health services than the state is currently able to provide.
The CSAC plan calls for its Hill House facility in Middlebury to be equipped with two new beds that would be reserved for area residents coping with psychiatric crises. The Hill House is a transitional residential program for people who are facing challenges associated with homelessness and psychiatric disability and is run in collaboration with Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), which owns the building. The Counseling Service staffs the programs and manages placements and services.
By adding two new beds at the Hill House for people in psychiatric crisis, CSAC would offer a cheaper, local alternative for patients who are now often taken to psychiatric hospitals upwards of 45 miles away, noted Alexander “Sandy” Smith, CSAC’s director or community rehabilitation and treatment.
He estimated it costs the state around $1,000 per day to serve patients in crisis in the hospital setting. Smith projected the new CSAC program at the Hill House would cost around one-third of that amount — with an added advantage.
“I think these (services) work best when someone has a connection to a local treatment team,” Smith said.
He noted the Hill House is already equipped to handle two new placements, people who would be accommodated in a separate wing from the seven other clients in the home. The Counseling Service would have to hire some new staff, but the Hill House already has core staff to help with the new program.
“We are ready to get going as quickly as possible,” Smith said, noting an upcoming meeting with state officials to work out final details.
Robert Thorn, executive director of CSAC, said the new program dovetails with what the state is trying to accomplish.
“It speaks to what Challenges is all about — the more efficient use of a community resource,” he said.
Plans call for the new program to be evaluated after a year to ensure the projected savings and outcomes are being realized.
Meanwhile, the ACHC is finalizing its own agreement with the state to provide affordable housing and related services to people who would otherwise require more expensive attention through individual state programs.
The ACHS is an association of several Addison County nonprofits that have banded together to advance more local affordable housing opportunities. The group’s proposal, to be administered by HOPE, calls for providing “housing and supportive services to approximately 225 people who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless.”
Targeted families include those with children with disabilities; households with multiple social needs; single adults and couples with disabilities, including physical and psychiatric; pregnant women; families with minor children; the elderly; and persons at risk of hospitalization and/or incarceration.
Case management plans are to be developed for each person served, with the goals of preventing homelessness; quickly re-housing those who are already homeless; avoiding the costs associated with hospitalization, law enforcement and incarceration; avoiding use of state funds for costly hotel rooms by placing homeless persons in apartments and transitional housing units; and allowing clients to more fully participate in the services they need in order to become more self-sufficient by removing the stress associated with living in temporary hotel rooms or shelters.
Under terms of the grant, HOPE and the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes will each hire a full-time case manager to serve clients. HOPE will also hire a part-time person to help access state housing funds and follow up on rental and down-payment assistance. Mental health and substance abuse counseling through CSAC will also be offered to clients who need it.
Affordable housing units will be provided to the greatest extent possible through HOPE, the John Graham Shelter and the Middlebury Community Care Coalition. But since much of the county’s affordable housing stock is already occupied, organizers will also contract with private landlords.
“Basic needs such as food, clothing, and household goods shall be met by use of HOPE’s food shelf and thrift shop, which provides free goods through a voucher program,” the ACHC project narrative reads. “Transportation to services shall be provided by use of Addison County Transit Resources, bus tokens from HOPE or the shelter, gasoline vouchers from HOPE for families who own cars, and rides from case managers. Financial help will be available for emergency medical and dental needs, fuel and utilities. These services will help to prevent homelessness for families who are struggling financially, and will help those who are already homeless.”
Services will also include budgeting and financial management, parent education, job skills training, job search assistance and GED tutoring.
The ACHC proposes to provide the above services for a year for $455,772 — or roughly $2,025 per person. Funding sources are to include $202,488 through the Challenges for Change grant, and the balance through in-kind contributions, a local match and other grants.
That investment could save the state around $540,000, according to the ACHC project narrative. Savings are to be realized through reduced hospitalizations for health and mental illness treatment; fewer incarcerations; less need for foster care; and far fewer state-funded hotel stays for homeless people. Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, noted the state in some cases pays more than $100 per night for hotel rooms for homeless families.
“It will certainly allow us to house more people for less money,” Montross said of the grant.
But Montross warned that not all of the state’s Challenges changes are paying big dividends.
She pointed to a modernization plan through which the Vermont Agency of Human Services is increasingly using computer and telecommunications technology to allow clients to apply for assistance without traveling. But Montross said there are apparently not enough people monitoring the Human Services database, as HOPE is seeing an increasing number of people who have been mistakenly dropped from state medical, food, and fuel assistance programs.
“It’s a tragedy,” Montross said. “Not only are there more people in need, their needs are not being met by the state.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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