More help sought for county’s poor

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County poverty fighting organization Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) has put out a new plea for donations in wake of a depleted food shelf and big surge in people asking for help in paying utility bills.
“I have never seen this before; people are calling asking about help every day,” said HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross, who has led the poverty fighting organization for more than a decade.
“This is amazing.”
Montross produced statistics showing that, through May 18,  HOPE’s food shelf has served an average of 493 people per month from 196 separate households thus far in 2012. That compares to an average of 426 people representing 176 households through May of last year. That works out to a 16 percent increase.
But HOPE officials are worried that food shelf use has been higher during each month of 2012 compared to 2011. Montross said 613 people used the food shelf in January, compared to 501 during January, 2011; 468 used it in February, up from 354; 563 used it in March, up from 437; and 556 used it in April, up from 390.
Figures for May are incomplete, though Montross is expecting another “banner” month. She said 448 people used the food shelf in May 2011. More than 260 clients had used it as of May 20, with many more expected.
“We are busiest during the second half of the month,” Montross said.
Perhaps most disconcerting to Montross is the fact that 18 percent of her clients currently have no income. During April, 13 percent of HOPE’s food shelf recipients reported no household revenue, according to Montross.
“People don’t have jobs, and they can’t get jobs,” Montross said.
She explained that while most jobless workers can readily receive such benefits as 3SquaresVt (formerly known as Food Stamps), they cannot tap into financial aid — barring unemployment benefits — unless they can prove a “vulnerability,” such as having children, or being elderly or disabled.
“For some people, it’s cyclical,” Montross said. “For other people, it’s because they have been unemployed for so long.”
Also rising to unprecedented levels at HOPE have been requests for help in paying for electricity bills. The organization received a combined total of 24 requests for such help in March and April. HOPE was able to meet 22 of those appeals for a combined total of $4,534, according to Montross.
Thus far in May, HOPE has received 12 additional requests for help totaling $3,004. The organization has been able to meet two of those requests amounting to $490, with more pending.
Montross said HOPE is only able to help pay the electricity bills of the most cash-strapped households facing power shut-offs. Particular attention is being paid to homes in which there are young children and/or very ill people.
In a recent donation appeal letter to the community, Montross profiled two clients she said exemplify the current crisis faced by local low-income people.
The first is “Renee,” a single mother with three young children, who recently took in her 67-year-old homeless mom, “Abbey,” to live with them. Abbey helped care for the children, which helped Renee get a second part-time job. But when Abbey and one of the children got sick, Renee had to pick up the slack at home, prompting her to miss work — and therefore, pay.
“Last week, the power company turned off their electricity,” Montross said of the family’s circumstances. The family has no hot water and must grill food outdoors, according to Montross.
Also profiled in the letter is “Marla,” a 57-year-old cancer patient who requires medical equipment to breathe.
“The equipment has caused her electric bill to climb and she is unable to afford it on her disability income,” Montross said. She noted the power company has refrained from turning off her power due to her circumstances, but has signaled its intent to do so soon, as Marla’s account is $1,300 in arrears.
Customers generally have 30 days in which to pay off their electric bills. The Vermont Public Service Department has created a primer for consumers relating to what can happen if utility bills aren’t paid. That document can be viewed at http://publicservice.vermont.gov/consumer/cons_Util&You.html.
Steve Costello, spokesman for Central Vermont Public Service Corp., said the state’s largest utility has made a consistent effort to work with customers on payment plans to avert disconnections. He said disconnections were down around 20 percent last year, representing an overall decline in shut-offs during the past eight to 10 years.
“Certainly, there are low-income customers who have challenges, and we work with them closely,” Costello said. “We have set up hundreds of payment arrangements.”
Montross, in her appeal letter, said many people need help in making those payments to utilities.
“Will you please consider a donation?” her letter concludes. “Any amount you can spare will be greatly appreciated and will help someone who is in a dire and potentially dangerous situation.”
Anyone seeking to help HOPE with its food shelf and electricity bill assistance program should call the organization at 388-3608.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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