Town reports upswing in emergency assistance2/12/09

More people sought temporary housing last year

Feb. 12, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Williston’s town service officer, who fields requests for emergency food and housing assistance, has seen a spike in the number of people seeking help.

Dawn Philibert said she handled about eight cases in 2008 and another two cases this year. She and a previous town service officer said they have never before seen more than a case or two each year.

Philibert attributes the increase to the free-falling economy, a tipping point for people who were just scraping by until they lost a job or were unable to earn enough to cover day-to-day expenses.

“In general, these are people who had some unstable housing arrangements,” she said. “A theme is people doubling up on housing because of job losses or cuts in hours.”

State law requires each Vermont municipality to appoint a service officer. The appointee handles requests for emergency assistance on nights and weekends when caseworkers with the state Department of Children and Families are unavailable.

Philibert has been Williston’s service officer for five years. Before that, Ruth Painter and Susan Lamb filled the post.

Painter could not be reached for comment. But Lamb, who is the town’s finance director, also recalled only receiving one or two calls a year from people seeking assistance during her time as service officer.

Philibert declined to provide details on specific cases to protect recipients’ privacy.

“The last thing I want is for people to read about themselves in the Observer and say, ‘That’s me,’” she said.

But she did say those seeking assistance have typically lost a job or are working for low wages. They are often living with relatives and friends temporarily “and then for any number of reasons it falls apart.”

“They’ve lost their job, can’t find another job, they couldn’t afford the rent or there was some family crisis,” she said. A couple of cases Philibert handled over the past year involved young children.

A Williston hotel has provided rooms at a reduced rate and a local convenience store has chipped in free food, Philibert said. She declined to reveal the businesses’ names because they may want to remain anonymous.

The state pays for assistance facilitated by service officers. Philibert said there is a three-night limit on temporary housing assistance as well as a dollar limit on food. There is also a ceiling on overall expenditures, but she said the state has not invoked funding limitations.

Town service officers are paid the equivalent of minimum wage, Philibert said, but she has chosen not to accept any reimbursement for her time.

The town of Williston also sets aside a small amount of money for emergency assistance. The town budgeted $2,000 this year. Lamb said in the past that money was used to help people with heating bills. She said the town has received no requests for assistance this year.

Philibert, a Williston resident, holds a master’s degree in social work and recently started working as public health policy director at the Vermont Health Department. She said her new job and parenting duties leave her with little spare time. But she still wanted to make a contribution.

“I consider it one small way to give back to my community,” she said. “It’s not much, but it’s what I can do.”