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Last week "In My View," Marie Leotta asked: "Why isn't there a state agency to help?" The answer is that in its wisdom (and I am not being sarcastic) Vermont funds and supports statewide networks of local and regional private nonprofit charitable organizations to provide many direct services like accommodations and services to folks who lose their homes. Some of these agencies are larger and well established like the Community Action Agencies, Home Health and Hospice, Family Services, and a few others. Some, like the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, Battered Women's Services and Shelter, and Good Neighbors Transitional Housing for Homeless Families, are small organizations that depend heavily on donations and contributions from the community as well as on countless hours of unpaid volunteer time to augment shrinking grants from the state and federal programs.
So, my first point is that it's a good thing direct services are usually not provided by state agencies. State employees I've encountered are generally competent, compassionate and responsive but they do receive reasonable financial compensation paid for by state and federal taxpayers. Except for some exceptions like Partners in Service (PINS), folks don't usually make donations to state agencies or their programs. Nor do state agencies rely on volunteers in any significant way. So, taxpayers may get what we pay for, but we pay for everything we get.
Last year's annual cash operating expenses for the Good Samaritan Haven (the "shelter" that was recommended) in 2008 was $143,242. Of this, about 54 percent came from a combination of state and federal programs. The remaining 46 percent, or $68,000, came from private donations from churches, individuals, businesses, United Way, and private foundations. In addition, volunteers contributed over 7,500 hours. The Haven is staffed every night -- 365 nights a year -- from 6 p.m. until 7 a.m. by volunteers. Volunteers provide other services as well. Families, church groups and service organizations pay for, prepare, and deliver over 5,000 hot and nutritious meals per year on every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving when local churches offer special holiday meals for all in need. Television cable services are donated. Trash removal services are donated. It's not a stretch to value volunteer services and food at well over $100,000 per year.
So, Good Samaritan Haven easily provides over $250,000 worth of services at a cost to state and federal taxpayers of about $80,000. A state agency simply could not do this. In short, thankfully there are many others like Marie Leotta who contribute their time, energy, skills and money to help folks in need.
Second, the recommendation to call Good Samaritan Haven (not shelter) was a good one. Ms. Leotta's dismay that "all she (the social worker) could recommend is an overnight shelter" was badly misplaced. Although it is true that the Haven is only open at night, there is a full-time staff that helps Haven guests find jobs (if needed), financial assistance, and safe and affordable permanent housing. Guests are welcome to stay so long as they are working toward self-sufficiency. The average stay at the Haven is about 25 days. The Haven has accommodations for men, women and families. The three dogs wouldn't have fazed Haven staff and arrangements would have been made to keep the dogs warm, safe and fed.
Right now, the accommodations at the Haven are a bit limited as an addition is being built and renovations are being made to the existing building. But, the Haven and the Lajeunesse Construction have arranged the scheduling so that the Haven can remain open while the work is being done. The Haven has operated every day for the past 22 years and it was simply time for additional work such as a sprinkler system, increased energy efficiency, improved handicapped access, and an addition so everyone can dine together.
Nonetheless, the Haven has never turned anyone away for lack of space nor do they plan to start now. (The Haven does not accept people who are inebriated or appear to be high on drugs or are abusive to other guests or volunteers -- which is necessary for the comfort and safety of the other guests and the volunteers.) By the way, about 63 percent of the funds for the renovations and addition came from federal grants, about 23 percent from state funds and about 14 percent from the private sector.
Local clergy in The Valley, staff at the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, the Central Vermont Community Action Agency, apparently the social worker in Barre, and most other service providers in the area are familiar with the Haven. It would seem, however, that Good Sam will need to toot its horn a bit louder and make sure that its services are better known to The Valley community at large. Hopefully, this will help.
Karen Winchell lives in Fayston.