Coronavirus leads to expanded role for Ridgefield Social Services

Ridgefield Social Services Director Tony Phillips says his department is busier than usual due to the effects of the coronavirus.

Ridgefield Social Services Director Tony Phillips says his department is busier than usual due to the effects of the coronavirus.

Contributed photo / Charlotte Phillips

Like many communities throughout the country, Ridgefield has borne witness to the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic. As of Tuesday evening the town had totaled 143 COVID-19 cases, and 20 residents had died from the virus. Many others have been economically impacted through layoffs, furloughs, or reduced work hours.

Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that the Ridgefield Social Services department is finding itself busier than usual. Earlier this week, Tony Phillips, the department’s director, answered questions from The Press about the agency’s increased role.

Have you seen in increase in Ridgefield residents using or inquiring about social services in the past two months?

“We have seen a dramatic uptick in new applicants for the Ridgefield Responds program ... most are people we’ve never met. We typically find that new clients contact us for one thing, and then through working with them, we find that they need help in several areas, or we know of several programs that can help.

“Ridgefield Responds was created for immediate short-term response during a crisis and the organization raises money periodically as needed under the Friends of Ridgefield public 501C-3 umbrella. The program will continue as long as there are funds available and there is a need related to COVID-19. As of Tuesday morning, Ridgefield Responds has received 87 applications and has granted approximately $108,000 in assistance.

“We do have a shift in needs as well. Many of our clients with whom we work have lost hours or lost work all together. This has increased the demand for access to unemployment insurance and likely down the road food assistance through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and may also impact a need for access to AccessHealthCT or HUSKY (the state of Connecticut’s public health coverage program for eligible recipients).

“The United Way (of Western Connecticut) estimates that Ridgefield has about 22% of its residents (households) who live in poverty (3%) or are considered to be ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and living check to check (19%). We always feel like we have contact with anywhere from 100 to 300 households during any given season or program. With the current situation, I expect we will meet more of those 2,000 ALICE households.”

What features of the Ridgefield Responds program are attractive to those economically affected by the coronavirus?

“While the federal and state governments have put temporary holds on evictions and foreclosures, pushed back mortgage payments ... there is no current institutional stopgap for rent payments, even with the state saying it’s OK to pay late. If there is no income, whether you owe $1,000 now or $3,000 in June, it will be impossible for many to keep up or make it up.

“[First Selectman] Rudy Marconi was instrumental in setting up this program about four weeks ago. With the help of Social Services’ [staff member] Karen Gaudian as the gatekeeper for the program, Ridgefield Responds has had over 80 applications and has awarded tens of thousands of dollars for rent help for Ridgefield residential renters who have been impacted by COVID-19 through loss of hours, loss of work, illness, lack of child care.”

Is Ridgefield Social Services able to accommodate all residents who need services now?

“We are a small department of two [people]. We lost our intern in early March when WestConn (Western Connecticut State University in Danbury) closed for the rest of the semester. So we are always limited as to what and how much we can do. It has been a whirlwind of a month that would make your head spin. We are always in motion searching for the gaps in service and then finding ways to plug them quickly and efficiently.

“We work very closely with many of the folks who make up the proverbial village: MOW (Meals On Wheels), Ridgefield Housing Authority, the Salvation Army, Ridgefield PBA (Police Benevolent Association), Thrift Shop, Rotary Club, Founders Hall, Lions Club, the faith community, Board of Realtors, the Rec Center, and so many more.

“We have an official and unofficial group of volunteers otherwise known as RIDGEFIELD — the whole community shows up for everything and everyone in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere. It is difficult to meet everyone’s needs, but we always do our best and will continue to do our best as the public health crisis goes on.

“Last week someone referenced us as the ‘king/queen of solving challenging situations.’ We hope to be able to meet the needs in the coming days and weeks, and we will work hard every day to make that happen. We know the entire town of Ridgefield is right behind us (and many times out in front of us).”

Has there been an increase in residents asking about mental health services? How are those provided?

“We have certainly noticed the increase in stress. With stress comes more need for ways to reduce stress and many will need help with that. We have gathered a group of local clinicians who have added their names and skills to a list that has been shared all over the community. We’ve named that resource Ridgefield: Healthy Heads and Hearts. Many have offered to do some pro-bono work as well.

“I am energized to be working with a group of dedicated clinicians to help us all through what has turned out to be a large-scale experience of trauma. I have also ramped up my use of our Social Services Facebook page to increase more information about how to reduce stress through breathing, mindfulness, music, movement.

“We’ve also highlighted programs at the Recreation Center on meditation and Qigong. Founders Hall is also offering some stress reduction/yoga classes as well. We also have a great resource in KIC (Kids In Crisis), which has always had a 24-hour hotline at 203-661-1911 for parents or kids to call with needs. They also have three clinicians from their Teen Talk program who continue to work remotely with many families in Ridgefield.

“No one has to go through this alone. We are all in this together and there are helpers everywhere.”

Are more people asking Ridgefield Social Services for food? If so is it a big increase from normal usage? How is food being provided? Is the food from social services all provided through donations?

“Food is a primary need ... the only thing more important is drinking water. So social services will spend as much time and resources as we need/can to ensure Ridgefield residents know where to access food. We look at everyone on an individual basis and do our best to make sure each family has what they need.

“We have been providing gift cards from Town Hall for those who need them, by appointment. We are encouraging people to apply for state SNAP or WIC (Women, Infants and Children) benefits. We have some residents who have access to a United Way discount card at Stop & Shop. We had food boxes delivered to some residents last week by the Salvation Army; another delivery is being made today.

“Meals On Wheels served 1,000 meals in March ... up from 600 the month prior. The school district is providing (weekday) meals to any child in the district who needs them. We will keep finding food resources and distributing them to ensure no one in Ridgefield goes without.

“We help every family/person on an individual basis. Even though we shut the doors to the food pantry, we are still open to help. We have transitioned over to doing online fund-raising or gift cards for groceries and restaurants. We were able to procure 40 boxes of dried goods and have them delivered to a housing complex last week, and we’ll repeat that Tuesday at another location. We intend to continue rotating until it’s no longer needed.”

Has there been an uptick in residents donating food (or other items) and volunteering for Neighbors Helping Neighbors?

“I understand that NHN (Neighbors Helping Neighbors) had about 75 volunteers. That is awesome. People in town have made the transition with us to donating online so that we can continue to provide food to our food pantry consumers. People have started to deliver restaurant gift cards to our yellow mailbox in front of the RPD (Ridgefield Police Department) ... some restaurants are actively creating programs to help feed residents. Nature’s Temptations just started a program with us where they take donations and we give out vouchers for family meals to our clients.

“Our food-pantry needs are consistent and growing. Many of the same people who shopped at the pantry continue to need help, but we also find many who were working now have lost hours or work on top. Our pantry has shifted to taking online donations and is helping with gift-card distribution instead of non-perishable food.

“It was always impossible to count how much food came in and went out of the pantry each day or each month. But we know that the Rotary Club would deliver an estimated $10,000-$13,000 worth of food every month. I suspect the rest of the community would match that amount in any given month. So now that the Town Hall pantry is closed, that is a significant drop in donations that we have to find a way to replace ongoing.”

Have you had to dip into Ridgefield Emergency Fund? If so, how much has been withdrawn? If not, do you expect to need to use fund soon?

“First, we are so thankful and blessed to have access to the Ridgefield Emergency Fund. All year long we receive donations to the emergency fund. Likewise, we dip into the Ridgefield Emergency Fund almost every day of the year to help our residents with their basic needs.

“In some respects it is Ridgefield’s rainy day account ... and right now it’s raining. We will continue to use the emergency fund to help people, and will continue to solicit donations so we can continue helping in the long term.”

What have been the biggest challenges for you personally?

“The new pace and continual evolution of things is hard. Sometimes it feels like the goal posts are never seated for more than an hour. As this is a population-wide event, me and my family are also impacted. Some days the pace moves so fast and the needs are so great ... I eat lunch at 3 p.m.

“I have two friends who lost their fathers and another who lost an uncle last month, so it is also real and personal. I worry about my family ... just like everyone else. We also have formed relationships with many, many people in town, so naturally we worry about them all, too. Both on a town level but also as people we know and care about.

“But in a time when there is not enough energy to go around, I get energy from the volunteers who raise their hands to help. I am invigorated by the continual donations that keep coming in. I am invigorated by the community-wide attempts at levity/community through orange ribbons, ringing the bells, making and donating masks, rainbows, and so much more. I am invigorated by the helpers. And as I’ve said in many of my communications to the public, look for the helpers ... they are everywhere.”