Demand for services is now at an all-time high at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the Vineyard’s sole umbrella social services agency, and precisely at a time when funding has grown scarce amid a deepening economic recession.
“Things are busier than ever,” said Community Services director Julia Burgess in an interview with the Gazette this week. “There are a lot of people who need our help right now, so we have to work extra hard to keep up.”
Community Services employs around 100 staff members and provides services through five programs. The programs are the Community Building and Innovation Program, Connect to End Violence, Early Childhood Programs, Disability Services, Island Counseling Center, and the Thrift Shop.
In the interview at her office, Mrs. Burgess noted the irony of the situation: as the recession creates more demand for the services her organization provides, it also means funding for the programs is threatened. Gov. Deval Patrick, seeking to cut about $1.6 billion in expenses to make up for a $3.5 billion budget shortfall, last week made deep cuts in local aid and other funding.
It remains unclear how those cuts will affect social services around the state, but many say a reduction in funding is nearly certain. Fixed costs and other commitments mean there is only a small portion of the state budget that can be cut, and social services fall squarely into that category.
Mrs. Burgess said the hardest part is not knowing what to expect.
“Right now, it’s just wait and see. We don’t know how [the cuts] will affect the individual programs. We try to remain optimistic, but it’s hard,” she said.
She said early indications are that funding for the Family Support program, part of the Disability Services, may be cut completely. The Community Services Daybreak program, a drop-in center that provides vocational and social rehabilitation services for people with mental illness, has already been cut by $10,000; while the early childhood program has been cut $30,000.
The organization has also lost a some funding for substance abuse programs. So far funding for domestic violence and sexual assault programs remains intact.
Mrs. Burgess said Community Services has managed to make up for the losses in other areas, but it hasn’t been easy. She said some staff members are covering two positions at once, while almost all staff have had to work harder to maintain the same level of care for clients. Meanwhile, Community Services has imposed a hiring freeze.
She said reducing the number of clients has not been considered — at least for now.
“These people depend on us to get through their everyday lives. We cannot shut the door on them. The staff is aware of that. And if that means we have to work a little harder, we will do it,” she said.
The funding cuts come less than six months after the organization unveiled an ambitious five-year strategic plan which aimed to expand services. Mrs. Burgess said the plan will have to wait out the economic downturn.
“In this economy you have to shift your focus to simply maintaining the services currently provided. To me that’s personally very frustrating. The need is still there . . . it doesn’t go away because the money isn’t there,” she said.
In fact she said the demand for services has increased dramatically since the start of the recession. Nationally, the increasing unemployment rate is causing an increase in both domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse. On the Vineyard the trend appears to be pronounced.
Mrs. Burgess said the Connect to End Violence program saw 90 clients in November, 117 in November and 132 in December. The progressive increase can be partly linked to better outreach programs, Mrs. Burgess said, but there is no doubt that hard times are taking their toll.
“When the money gets short, it puts strain on a family,” she said.
Across the country requests for therapists have soared and domestic violence and suicide hot lines are reporting increased calls. Mrs. Burgess said the Island Counseling Center is at capacity for its caseload with a waiting list that has increased over the past year. And she said the types of problems seen by staff are more intense and complicated.
Other programs are seeing similar effects. Employment Services, which helps people with disabilities enter the work force, has had problems placing clients, as some steady employers including Cronig’s Market and Stop & Shop have seen a spike in applicants without disabilities.
Community Services often refers patients to health centers and practitioners off-Island for services not offered here, but many of those agencies have fared even worse with budget cuts, and have refused to treat some clients.
Community Services president Susan Wasserman said her board of directors is worried on all fronts, from fund-raising to personnel. “Raising money is not the only obstacle on the Vineyard; there is also the challenge of attracting people who are qualified and keeping them here. The Vineyard is an expensive place and an isolated place . . . and we face challenges that other communities do not,” she said.
But Ms. Wasserman said the staff and volunteers of Community Services are a fiercely dedicated lot.
“I think all of us in our personal lives have either known or been touched by people who benefit from these services. The way we look at it, we are all in this together,” she said.
There are some possible bright spots on the horizon. President Barack Obama’s federal stimulus plan could bring in additional revenue for some programs. And at least one program, the Thrift Store in Vineyard Haven, is doing a booming business.
Store manager Sandy Pratt said sales are nearing record high levels. And in keeping with the theme of Community Services, the store has become more than just a place for bargains, it has become a meeting place for the community.
“We don’t just sell things here, we provide a place where people can go. It’s winter and people want to get out of the cold, so they come here for a few hours, get warm and talk with their neighbors. People now are getting so much bad news in their daily lives — they want to come to a place where someone is there to greet them and talk to them,” she said, adding:
“And if they can pick up a new board game or clothing for the family, then that makes us happy too.”