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Churches, towns, struggle to meet needs of poor
AREA — Homelessness in Oxford County is a real problem, with an estimated 150 homeless people spread among the county's 38 towns, according to Maine State Housing Authority figures.
For some, the holiday season is a time to celebrate family and an abundance of food, warmth, and material goods.
For others, the holiday season is a reminder of a long and cold winter. In Maine, the winter is longer and colder than it is in most places.
Churches, towns, and social service agencies are all feeling the strain of trying to meet the basic survival needs of the area's poor.
The issue came to the fore when Reverend Anne Stanley ,of Norway's Christ Episcopal Church, addressed the Paris Board of Selectmen last week.
"I wanted to brief you a little bit about what the churches are up against these days," said Stanley. "We've seen a significant increase in people coming through our doors. I had four people, four homeless people, this past week alone."
Stanley's comments have sparked a discussion among church and town leaders about how to both prevent, and alleviate, poverty.
They also demonstrate that homelessness in rural areas is real, despite a common misconception that homelessness is limited to more urban settings.
"What do you do with these wandering souls that come in, and they're skinny and shivering, some of them?" asked Stanley.
The churches are caught between two opposing principles. Most recognize a biblically-mandated directive to help the poor in just this sort of situation.
However, a church that does nothing but help feed and shelter the poor risks losing sight of spreading spiritual support and enlightenment to the broader community.
"It's really a tough thing," said Stanley. "Churches aren't social service agencies... We're houses of worship where we give Christian formation or spiritual formation and education primarily, but more and more, we're having to do this work."
"We don't mind, but it just takes a lot of time," said Stanley.
The large numbers of people seeking help raises the question of what role, exactly, churches should play in the larger battle against homelessness.
"It seems to us that there's always an assumption abroad that the church is the ... first source, and the towns are the last resort," said Stanley, "where I believe it's the other way around."
Stanley says that the church is put in a difficult situation when municipalities refer people to their doors.
"A lot of people who come ... we churches always say 'why did you pick us? Why did you come to us?' out of curiosity, and they say 'well the town sent us,' and it could be Paris or Norway or some other neighboring town," said Stanley.
The influx of requests is so great that church leaders have considered drastic steps.
"There's been some talk of putting people up in the basements of churches sleeping there or in a bigger public space, and rotating from church to church," said Stanley.
Physically housing the poor and needy, however sanctioned by creed, creates a whole range of practical issues.
"That raises humongous problems with sanitation and safety," said Stanley. "You have to have trained people ... churches aren't really equipped for that."
A person who is at risk of homelessness can turn in many different directions for help. Family, government, social service agencies, and churches all can play a role in getting someone back on their feet.
Stanley said that there are a few homeless shelters in the region that provide transitional housing for families. She cited one that was established by Community Concepts in Paris, and a shelter in Rumford.
"But it's not really adequate," said Stanley.
With resources and budgets strained, there is not always enough help to go around, and an uncoordinated response can strain those budgets even more.
"It just seems that with the promise of more and more drastic cuts at the federal and state level, you [towns] and we [churches] and agencies whose very existence is now threatened ... are going to be in more of a bind than ever," said Stanley.
Stanley said that the church is hard-pressed to meet the demands. The church can provide assistance only when it has funds to do so.
"The Oxford Hills Area Clergy Association has a fund," said Stanley. "Some of this FEMA money comes in once in a while, some of it comes from an ecumenical Thanksgiving service that we hold every year. We held it yesterday and we got $216 in the plate."
Towns, agencies in the safety network
Towns have traditionally addressed the problems of poverty and homelessness in two ways. They hand out state-mandated General Assistance (GA) dollars, and they give money to social service agencies.
This year, Paris and Norway have felt the strain of increased GA requests.
"A red flag is up," said Tarr. "Some of it is economy-driven, some from state cuts to welfare i.e. TANF, food stamps and heating oil, and some from the fact that we know we will service more people, and that alone will impact our budget."
Last year, Norway's General Assistance fund went over budget by $64,590. Norway had budgeted approximately $40,000 for General Assistance, which was less than half of the actual demand.
"Overall, in terms of dollars, whatever the cost is at the end of the year, we are obligated to support it," said Tarr. "The state reimburses cities and towns 50 percent of the direct GA costs."
Paris Selectman Lloyd Herrick suggested reducing funding from social service agencies to help shore up a rapidly shrinking GA fund, but Paris has already distinguished itself as one of the least-generous towns in the area, in that regard.
Social agency funding is $1,000 .
That is positively stingy as compared to other area towns. Paris has a population of about 5,000. Buckfield, which has about 1,700, or one-third the number of, taxpayers, spends more than four times as much on social service agencies, at $4,500.
Sumner puts both towns to shame, with about $5,175 in funding for social service agencies raised from a population of just 850 residents.
Norway (including Norway CDP) has a population of about 7,200, and it disburses social service funds through a Provider Committee, which sends out about $30,000 to social service agencies and other community causes.
Interestingly, the towns which have spent more, per capita, on social service agencies than Paris have not seen a dramatic increase in GA requests.
"So far things seem fairly average," said Buckfield Town Manager Glen Holmes, in response to a request about increased GA requests.
Cynthia Norton, the administrative assistant in Sumner, reports that "we have had very few requests for anything this year."
Norway Town Manager David Holt says that there has been an increase, but not a surprising one, "given the economy, time of year and availability of housing."
Paris Selectman Ted Kurtz says that he does not support cutting the social services budget.
"I think taking from the 'stingy' budget is not the answer," said Kurtz."We should not cut back our social service budget, we should not simply raid a "reserve" account, we should not fail to meet the challenge."
The problem is that, when a person is in a financial crisis, they tend to seek financial help to address the crisis, rather than addressing the underlying causes of poverty. This can lead some to seek help over and over again, without ever getting the help that they truly need to achieve independence.
As the saying goes, people need a hand up, not a hand out.
Of the four institutions that comprise the safety net for at-risk people, only social service agencies are expert in applying dollars for the maximum benefit. Towns, churches, and families are much more likely to address the immediate crisis than the underlying cause.
Stanley said that the issue goes beyond paying for a heating bill, or a rent payment.
"Sometimes, just dumping money on a problem is like pouring water in a sieve," she said. "Basically, with these issues, we have to find out what the root cause is, it seems to me."
Stanley said that the root cause, in many instances, has to do with a lack of life skills.
"Why is this person hungry, why is this person homeless, why did this person get their power turned off?" she asked. "So part of it is equipping people with life skills so that they don't get into these jams."
Kurtz said that the scope of the larger problem can go beyond the ability of the towns to handle.
"We're just a town," said Kurtz. "A person comes in and says 'I can't heat a house this next month,' there may be something specific we may be able to do, but we're not in the business of getting into the [larger issues]."
Selectwoman Jean Smart said that the issue's complexity makes it difficult to know how to best help.
"We — the board and town — need to do our homework and come up with some creative ways to solve a problem that will only get worse and certainly will not go away," said Smart. "It seems to me that the town and board cannot, should not ignore or bury this. Solving this problem will take thorough research as well as compassion, generosity of spirit and wise decision making."
Kurtz says the town can play a role in addressing the problem. He advocates reallocating money from other sources within the town budget.
"The answer, for me, is that we curb our appetite for consumption," said Kurtz, "and that we take money already paid by the taxpayers this year, and we divert it to this cause."
"I am deeply concerned about this issue," said Kurtz. "This is an issue about collective sacrifice."
At the Paris meeting, Kurtz asked Town Manager Phil Tarr to review the budget to look for funds that could be reallocated to help those in need.
"Is there any room in our existing budget to squeeze out a little more money because we anticipate this is going to be a tough winter?" asked Kurtz.
"I think that's a very appropriate question, and some of it obviously will be dependent upon how bad of a winter we have with roads," said Tarr, "but we'll see if we can have some suggestions you could have in your hip pocket, in case you need to act."
Tarr suggested that bringing groups together to face the problem jointly would be beneficial.
"A while back, I experienced a similar situation working for another community, and we convened a summit of clergy, municipal officials, and human service agencies," said Tarr.
"It worked well to coordinate the delivery of services, however meager they happened to be," said Tarr.
Stanley said that it might be helpful.
"It certainly wouldn't hurt," she said. "Maybe we can work together, the agencies the churches and the town to sort this through," said Stanley.