Guest column by John Bidwell: Fighting for our most vulnerable during COVID-19

  • United Way of Hampshire County logo

Published: 3/25/2020 3:14:30 PM

The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network reported last week that a quarter of nonprofits in the state are seeing an increased demand for services because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for agencies working with our most vulnerable populations such as older adults, the homeless, people with disabilities, those in recovery from addiction and those living with mental health challenges.

“We are definitely worried about these populations,” says Cherry Sullivan, program coordinator for HOPE, an opioid prevention coalition run out of Northampton’s Health Department. “Our most vulnerable neighbors are more so now — not less.”

Pam Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, is concerned.

“The risks facing people experiencing homelessness are much greater now,” she says. “We are facing the urgent challenge of keeping people sleeping in shelters safe, but the close quarters and lack of alternative housing make the risk especially high.”

Some agencies can work remotely. Others on the front line of social service needs can’t. The stakes are too high.

“Connection is fundamental for people in recovery,” says Dan Bickford, peer coordinator at Northampton Recovery Center. “Close, ongoing connection and support doesn’t just feel good. Science shows that it is vital to people on the road to recovery. It can literally be life or death for them. And with other resources shutting down we ... we are needed even more.”

Agencies are not just staying open. They are willing to fight for it.

“We are continuing for now, unless ordered otherwise,” says Angelina Ramirez, CEO of Stavros, an agency serving those with disabilities.

Angelina is talking with state legislators to ensure that Stavros remains open. They are doing everything to protect the health of their clients and themselves, but the bottom line is that their work is essential. “And that,” says Ramirez, “pretty much includes everybody in our office.”

Increasing need in a quickly changing environment is only half the challenge. The other is diminishing resources. The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network said that 89% of nonprofits already report revenue losses, and almost a half (47%) report staff and volunteer absences.

“We don’t have the choice to shut down,” says Allan Ouimet, head of Highland Valley Elder Services, the agency providing hundreds of warm meals across the region daily. For many, Highland Valley is the only regular contact some people have, especially in rural areas.

“We are seeing an uptick in need at the same time as other resources are closing and volunteers are getting harder to find,” he says.

In short, need is increasing as resources are shrinking.

Staying open, providing services and limiting exposure has demanded quick and creative thinking. ServiceNet provides essential services to a host of vulnerable populations. They now separate waiting room chairs by 6 feet. Their group homes are now staffed by a full-time person, rather than covered by shifts with difference people. ServiceNet got permission from insurance and the state to provide therapy over the phone. This required developing a system that keeps calls anonymous.

Sue Stubbs, CEO of ServiceNet, says, “We are finding help where we can. We are using staff from other agencies. We are relying heavily on more limited staff to step up.”

The challenges are great and will only intensify, but there is hope. Stubbs adds, “At least we live in a relatively sparsely populated area. Hopefully, we can keep things under control here.”

“All are struggling with the balance of keeping healthy and keeping open,” says Heidi Nortonsmith, executive director of the Northampton Survival Center. “We are having to make important decisions with limited and changing information.”

Everybody is inspired by the willingness of people to give back and volunteer.

All agree that we live in a region with a big heart. Nortonsmith shares an email from a volunteer, reading: “I can’t tell you how different and good I felt after volunteering ... For the first time since the coronavirus havoc I spent more than two hours doing something that wasn’t about me.”

Not everybody can volunteer at this time, nor should too many. But there are other ways to help. Visit uwhampshire.org/covid19 to learn what you can do.

And we can all be grateful for those who fight for our most vulnerable neighbors. Come what may, they do what they have always done — relentlessly make the most of the circumstances and their resources to help those who need it most.

John Bidwell is executive director of United Way of Hampshire County, focusing on poverty and low-income challenges and supporting the agencies that serve those populations.


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