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Finding gaps in human services

Communities vary in ability to help

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / November 19, 2009

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Municipal human services departments from Newton to Northborough are trying to keep up with a crush of people facing mental health crises, imminent homelessness, hunger, and the need for heat this winter.

“In the year since our outreach coordinator began, she has worked with 296 new families that we had not seen before,’’ said Moira Munns, director of human services and the Council on Aging in Natick. “Last year we assisted Natick residents in receiving $60,042 in fuel assistance benefits. That was more than double the previous year’s figure.’’

The local agencies are often the first stop for residents facing traumatic life issues.

The increase in need amid the still-faltering economy is surfacing even as tight municipal finances mean some of the departments are facing budget cuts, losing staff and resources, and scrambling for new funding sources.

The level of resources varies from community to community, depending on budgets, organizational structures, and priorities. While some departments offer counseling, others make referrals. Some are well staffed, while many are one-person operations.

In Framingham, where 8 percent of the town’s 66,910 residents live below the poverty line, according to the most recent US census, Alexis Silver is the town’s human services policy and program coordinator. People who come to her asking for help are referred to outside agencies, such as Advocates Inc.

“I’m a department of one,’’ said Silver. Her department’s budget is her salary.

But in Northborough, which has 2.8 percent of its 14,013 residents below the poverty line, the Family and Youth Services Department has a director, an assistant, a part-time counselor, and two master’s degree clinical interns who assist with counseling.

Every staff member is needed, said the agency’s director, June David-Fors.

“Over the last year, the number of fuel-assistance applications has at least doubled. For the first time in the agency’s history, we had to start a wait list for counseling services,’’ David-Fors said. Many of her clients tell of six- to nine-month waits for counseling at the region’s major mental health clinics, she said.

“People who are coming to us never expected they’d be coming to us. . . Many tell us that what finally brought them was that it was impacting their children,’’ David-Fors said.

Though many departments haven’t yet calculated their client numbers for the year, all of the agencies contacted in an unofficial survey reported seeing increases in need.

In Brookline, Lloyd Gellineau is a one-man operation, a director of alcohol and substance abuse prevention, human services, and domestic violence prevention.

“When I first started, I’d see one or two people per month,’’ he said. Recently he’s seeing three to four people per week. “Right now we’re seeing a major spike for health insurance and food stamps. People are coming in and aren’t able to pay the mortgage and pay for health insurance and pay for food.’’

Gellineau refers almost all people needing counseling to outside agencies like the Brookline Community Mental Health Center. His caseload is reserved for extreme cases, like compulsive hoarders who are discovered by town inspectors.

As director of Newton’s Department of Human and Volunteer Services, Beverly Droz is seeing more people who can’t pay bills and buy food, and are asking for help through the city’s holiday gift drive. “Newton, like any other community, is not immune to these situations,’’ she said.

Westborough also runs a holiday gift drive. The director of its Youth and Family Services Department, John Badenhausen, said he’s been getting calls from people requesting assistance for two weeks. In past years, he hasn’t heard from people until the last week of November.

Both Newton and Westborough provide counseling through their departments, unlike Brookline.

The level of service varies because cities and towns aren’t mandated to have human services departments. The state does require every community to have an official to coordinate assistance for veterans.

“Departments of human services developed on need and request’’ in individual communities, said Sue Baldauf, director of Bedford’s Youth and Family Services Department and president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Local Officials Human Services Council.

She said that some municipal departments, including Bedford’s, evolved from community efforts unaffiliated with the local government, while others were established by mayors or town administrators to meet the demand of constituents.

“In Massachusetts, there’s not a lot of consistency,’’ Baldauf said.

The increase in need is coming as municipalities struggle with cutbacks in state aid and lower revenues from local taxes.

Last Friday, the Local Officials Human Services Council held a conference to help human services staff members share strategies on ways to increase funding in the face of looming budget cuts.

Baldauf said only 15 people attended from 12 communities, a lower turnout than usual. Ironically, she said, many human services employees couldn’t attend to learn how to increase their funding because their professional development budgets have been cut.

Administrators are seeing cuts “in towns and cities across the state,” said Baldauf. Health services departments - especially those in communities that are more dependent on local state aid - are increasingly facing furloughs, layoffs, and decreased staff hours, she said.

In Bedford, which has three full-time staff members and one part-time employee along with three contracted clinicians, Baldauf has had to seek outside grants to supplement the agency’s programs. The department’s operating budget has remained stagnant for years.

Newton’s human services agency lost its 30-hour-per-week assistant last fiscal year, Droz said, and she’s unsure about the outlook for next year’s budget.

Much will depend on the incoming mayor, Setti Warren, and his priorities when he takes office after Jan. 1.

Westborough had to cut $300 from its budget this year. “It was a small cut but we’re concerned it will be larger’’ next year, said Badenhausen.

Munns, Natick’s human services director, attended last week’s conference on funding and said she periodically writes grant proposals, though finding the time and concentration to do so can be difficult.

Last year, Natick’s department had a clinical social worker and part-time outreach coordinator funded through an increase in property taxes approved by voters.

“It was just at the right time because the need has increased dramatically,’’ said Munns. She said departments like hers are just as critical as any other town services, since they address people’s needs before they escalate to the point of requiring police or fire interventions.

Although the Natick department grew in the past year, she said, this year is different. Munns had to decrease her budget by 2 percent, and the town faces a $3 million deficit next fiscal year.

Likewise, Northborough has had to reduce its budget this year, which means staff members are trying to do more with less, a phenomenon that holds true even when budgets are level-funded, since inflation raises operating costs.

“Next year, they’re asking us to do a budget with no increases,’’ said David-Fors. But she worries that might change. Perhaps there will be cuts.

“We’re still holding our breaths,’’ she said.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.