HOPE sees increase in demand for services

There’s been a jump (in demand for food). We’re routinely serving well above 700 people (per month).
— Jeanne Montross

MIDDLEBURY — While the economy is good and the county’s unemployment rate is hovering at around 2.3 percent, a growing number of folks are seeking aid from Middlebury-based Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) to get food, clothing and assistance in paying utility bills.
Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said the organization saw 997 new, unduplicated clients between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of this year. The largest number of these clients came from Middlebury (278), Bristol (111), Vergennes (85) and Leicester (69), according to HOPE statistics. Another 66 of this year’s new clients have been homeless individuals.
To put the 997 number in perspective, HOPE saw 240 new clients through the same nine months last year.
These new clients — along with repeat visitors — have been tapping some or all of HOPE’s services, including:
• A pantry that not only dispenses food, but also cooking tips on how to get the most out of it. The HOPE food shelf includes an abundance of locally gleaned fruits and vegetables.
• Financial assistance with housing and utilities.
• A helping hand to homeless people, in the form of camping gear, emergency hotel rooms, laundry vouchers, referrals and service coordination.
• Budget counseling for people who want to better manage their limited incomes.
• Help with urgent medical and dental needs.
• Employment-search assistance — including tools, uniforms, tests and other items needed to get or keep a job.
HOPE caters to households earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That’s currently $47,652 for a family of four, according to the Vermont Agency of Human Services.
Montross pointed to a couple of factors that have likely led to this year’s surge in HOPE clients. There are now signs on Route 7 South alerting people to HOPE and its food shelf. The organization has been beefing up its presence on social media, which has undoubtedly attracted new clients with computers and smart phones. And Montross is confident HOPE users are referring others to services.
When Montross first took the reins of HOPE around two decades ago, its food shelf was serving 200-250 people per month. Last month, the food shelf served 766 people from a combined total of 339 households.
“There’s been a jump,” she said. “We’re routinely serving well above 700 people (per month).”
Officials acknowledged the relative health of the national and state economies, but stressed not all segments of society are benefitting. As an example, Montross cited residents working multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. And she said a lot of the available jobs are in the service industry, where wages are often low and come without benefits.
Addison County, according to Montross, hasn’t yet recovered from the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs once offered at businesses like Standard Register and Polymers. Those businesses closed around a decade ago.
“Those were full-time jobs that paid good wages, with benefits,” Montross said. “Those people, most of them, are probably now working part-time jobs at low wages.”

HOPE workers believe the jump in clients will lead to a corresponding demand in the holiday meal boxes the organization provides to area low-income families every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those boxes typically include a turkey and the traditional trimmings, including stuffing ingredients, cranberry sauce, pie filling, veggies and potatoes.
During a typical year, HOPE passes out more than 350 holiday meal boxes. And assembly of those boxes will be more challenging this year, Montross noted, because the organization won’t be able to access holiday meal trimmings from the Vermont Food Bank. The reason, according to Montross: The recent death of a Food Bank employee who had great connections in the purchase of holiday foods at a bargain.
So Montross and her colleagues are looking for donations of turkeys (12-14 pounds), in-bird style stuffing, canned gravy, canned green beans and canned corn, pie crust mix, evaporated milk and butter. Or, Montross said, direct financial contributions would allow HOPE staff to buy the needed items.
Currently, HOPE has a crew of 20 full- and part-time employees. The organization is seeking volunteers to staff its reception area. One of the positions involves general reception work; the other provides steers clients to the specific HOPE service they are seeking. Volunteers are asked to work at least one four-hour shift per week. Anyone interested in helping should contact HOPE at 388-3608, or the United Way of Addison County at 388-7189.

In other HOPE-related news, the organization is asking people to limit their donation drop-offs of clothing and other material to Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at its 282 Boardman St. headquarters. The organization, until further notice, will no longer take donation drop-offs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
“We need to do this because if we don’t have anyone monitoring what people are bringing in, we get a whole bunch of stuff we can’t use,” Montross said. “We’re getting such a volume that people aren’t able to keep reducing that volume. This will allow staff enough time to process the donations and maximize the use of what’s going in. It’s not safe when we have so many things piled up back there.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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