Island social services anticipate strain from COVID-19 impacts

A recent Vashon Social Services Network meeting made clear that some are feeling the pressure.

The impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic have begun to test Vashon’s consortium of service providers as the economic fallout caused by the near-total shutdown of the American economy has further exposed the already vulnerable and gradually increased the number of people who need support, including islanders.

Some who belong to organizations within the Vashon Social Services Network say that they are ready for what lies ahead. But demand is starting to grow faster than donations can keep up in order for some island agencies to continue the work of providing assistance to those who need help with essentials. The situation could put an unprecedented strain on the island’s available resources just when many need them most.

‘I’m really worried’

Sue Gardner, secretary of the social services network, said the informal group was born out of the last major recession in 2008 during a time that echoes today, when hardworking people suddenly found themselves in trouble, leading many to try and figure out what could be done to help them. One of the first ills the network sought to address, Gardner said, was the lack of awareness among the island’s service providers of what support others were providing. The founding members of the network established priorities — the first was to develop the community meals program, coordinating with volunteer groups to offer dinner at island churches every night of the week — and determined ways each organization could collaborate and close gaps that arose.

Gardner said those initial actions have lent themselves well in the long run to how the network sees itself today, as the island’s social safety net.

But after a recent meeting between social services network members, it was clear that some island organizations are beginning to feel the pressure of the times.

The Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness (IFCH) subsidized the cost of rent for 114 people this month including individuals and families, comparable to previous months according to President Mary Van Gemert. But as unemployment rates skyrocket in the state and nation, a dramatic increase in the number of islanders who may find themselves unable to account for their living expenses is possible.

Hilary Emmer is fundraising on behalf of IFCH for island workers who have lost hours at their job or have been furloughed due to COVID-19. Her goal is to help them pay their utility bills and rent. Last month, she said, IFCH was able to raise $28,000 in donations. But she expects more will ask for assistance in the coming weeks heading into May, in addition to those who received subsidies in April.

IFCH has managed to raise $11,000 as of Sunday to help cover the cost of islanders’ bills next month, an amount Emmer said is far below what will be needed. She added that Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 18 moratorium on evictions ultimately won’t be enough help, coupled with stalled unemployment benefits and issues surrounding eligibility.

“I’m really, really worried about so many people, and while they can’t get evicted, my concern is [about] mounting up bills,” she said, adding that people will quickly fall behind.

After press time, the King County Council was set to discuss a motion calling on Gov. Inslee, federal legislators and the Trump administration to impose a moratorium on rent payments co-sponsored by councilmembers Girmay Zahilay and Jeanne Kohl-Welles.Meanwhile, United Way of King County has paused a rent relief program begun earlier this month due to high demand. Fundraising efforts are now underway to provide rental assistance to qualifying individuals and families.

For her part, IFCH case manager Nancy Vanderpool said there is also a deficit of understanding and compassion for many who cannot turn elsewhere and must ask for assistance. Feeling stigmatized can often trigger battles with mental health, she noted.

“We have over a hundred people [on Vashon] that do not sleep in buildings with roofs over their heads,” she said, adding that available and affordable rentals on the island are in short supply even in the best of times. “So my big thing is to be a good neighbor. Check on your neighbors. What do they need?”

In that spirit, Christine Jovanovich of the nonprofit Vashon Care Network — itself a matrix of services and resources for islanders searching for nursing homes, referrals and caregivers for the elderly — said she believes the pandemic has had one benefit, in that groups that were unlikely to collaborate are now starting to work together.

“It’s connected us better,” she said. On that note, Jovanovich said the pandemic has introduced the care network to the island’s Medical Reserve Corps, after their members asked if the care network needed more supplies. Forging new relationships between groups attempting to better the lives of islanders leaves the community more prepared to deal with crises later, Jovanovich said.

And partnering more closely might soon be the only way for many in the social services network to continue providing support. Jovanovich noted that the care network recently made a push to supply more than 30 in-home caregivers on Vashon with personal protective equipment including paper and cloth masks, gloves and hand sanitizer but are unable to offer more PPE at a larger scale to a wider number of Vashon’s health professionals.

‘Every contribution makes a difference’

In the wake of county-wide public school closures — first announced by Inslee on March 13 and soon extended to all schools in Washington until the fall — childcare has emerged as a critical flash point among families everywhere. State officials have emphasized since the beginning of the pandemic that families of medical workers have access to adequate childcare so they can continue to treat patients during the pandemic as cases continue to rise. On the island, Vashon Youth and Family Services’ Vashon Kids program — largely supported by island donors in the past — remains open in collaboration with the Vashon Island School District, though only to children whose parents are doing “necessary work” as defined by Inslee.

But Executive Director Carol Goertzel said that when the stay at home order is lifted, she expects families with already significantly reduced financial resources to need Vashon Kids greatly, with many likely to seek out VYFS’s scholarship offerings for the program.

“We will need an additional push for people to help, to help kids be able to come, and we will need scholarships more than we ever have while families try to get back on their feet financially,” Goertzel said. She added that the agency’s baby box program out of Family Place has also been more active than usual in recent days as young families, stretched thin, do not have opportunities to go shopping for items that they need themselves.

Goertzel said it is the mission of VYFS to ensure that the community knows the agency is open and that people know they can seek help. The island agency is busy doing intakes, providing remote counseling and staying within reach of all who need its services, as the crisis weighs heavy on all age groups but namely young people, such as high school students facing an especially difficult transition ahead to early adulthood, noted David Carleton, community engagement manager.

More than anything, Goertzel said that her priority was for the community to know that there are resources available meant to keep people safe and secure. For those with the means, she added, donations keep the pulse of the agency’s services beating.

“Every contribution … really makes a difference,” she said, adding that broad support also ripples across much of VYFS’s other offerings and outreach efforts including to the island’s Latinx families. “Everybody’s dedication makes such a difference,” she said.

Emily Scott, executive director of the Vashon Food Bank, said that making sure islanders feel secure enough to take care of themselves and their families was also a priority of volunteers and her staff.

Scott noted that meaningful and significant support from the community has been coming, though she noted the need for continued support was ongoing. 270 islanders used the food bank last week.

“The main thing that helps us from the community is ongoing financial support because food security is not a single shot goal,” she said. “The whole point is that … the target is moving, and it’s an ongoing thing, so, therefore, we need ongoing support from the community.”

Scott said there are challenges ahead. She expected the support the food bank continues to receive would be nearly commensurate with a likely impending increase in home delivery requests and pick-up services. Staff is working out issues around inventory management and order intake. Goods received from distributors are often unsorted and can be difficult to keep track of, leaving Scott to wonder if those using the food bank walk away feeling like they got what they needed to sustain themselves, or instead must lower their expectations. But the food bank will always be able to provide staple goods, she said.

“Our ultimate mission is still to ensure that nobody on Vashon goes hungry,” she said.

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