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Irene, recession put extra strain on SEVCA

Officials explain plight to Sanders during southern Vermont tour

BRATTLEBORO—In a normal year, Southeast Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) would have its hands full dealing with people who need help with a variety of problems ranging from filling an empty fuel oil tank to emergency food assistance.

But since Tropical Storm Irene struck last August, SEVCA has had to add the role of storm relief to its roster of services.

SEVCA officials explained their plight to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a meeting with the congressman last Tuesday in Brattleboro.

Executive Director Stephen Geller said the agency has had to hire two long-term disaster-relief coordinators to handle advocacy and assistance for storm victims. He said they are working with local recovery committees to make sure the people who need help get it.

Family Services Director Pat Burke said that SEVCA has been swamped with requests for aid from victims of the storm, as well as from those suffering from the consequences of the ongoing recession.

Lack of money for heating fuel, lack of food, and lack of housing are three biggest problems SEVCA employees are dealing with, she said.

“We’ve started a lot of new folders for people we’ve never seen in our office before,” said Burke.

That sentiment was echoed by Geller.

“We’re seeing an influx of working families that have never used our services before. There are a lot of people living on the edge, and it only takes one emergency to push them over.”

The Crisis Fuel and Utility Assistance Program is just one of SEVCA’s programs that is getting more use. Burke said that the demand for the program “has multiplied over the past five years,” but SEVCA has fewer resources to deal with the increased demand.

Proposed cutbacks to the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has put even more pressure on SEVCA, she said.

Sanders has led the fight for increased LIHEAP funding for Vermont, and he said that he will continue that fight for as long as it takes to ensure that Vermonters in need will be able to keep their homes warm.

SEVCA officials also talked to Sanders about the problem of siting a overnight warming shelter in Bellows Falls. SEVCA is the fiscal agent for the Greater Falls Warming Shelter (GFWS), the organization that ran the shelter for the past two winters.

This winter, a zoning dispute has kept the shelter from opening, and GWFS has had to rely on a similar shelter in Keene, N.H.., Hundred Nights, to run a nightly shuttle bus from Bellows Falls.

Geller said the lack of a shelter in Bellows Falls has put more pressure on the overflow shelter at the First Baptist Church in Brattleboro.

“They’re operating at 149 percent of their capacity,” said Geller, adding that the Brattleboro shelter is equipped to handle 18 people a night, and that most nights, 26 people use the shelter.

Fortunately, the region has been generous in helping SEVCA. For example, Geller said SEVCA has been collecting clothing, furniture, appliances, and bedding and linen for residents who lost their belongings during the storm. SEVCA has been so successful that these items have almost completely filled warehouse space donated to the organization by Chroma Technology of Rockingham.

The organization will have to vacate the Chroma space after mid-March, so SEVCA is making a big push to make storm victims aware that these items are still available for individuals and families that need them.

Sanders said that SEVCA “is doing a great job” in the face of increased demands for their services. He singled out for praise the organization’s weatherization program, which delivers such services free to low-income residents.

“Last year, they weatherized 440 homes, and those homes saw a 25-percent decrease in energy use,” Sanders said. “They have 22 people working in that program, so we’re saving energy and creating jobs at the same time.”

The meeting with SEVCA was part of a southern Vermont swing for Sanders. Earlier in the day, he visited Veterans Administration health clinics in White River Junction and Brattleboro, and he met with students at Bellows Falls Union High School.

He finished the day with a private meeting with Brattleboro Union High School students on his upcoming re-election campaign.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #135 (Wednesday, January 18, 2012).

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