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Social Services sees rise in need

Lisa Chamof, Greenwich Time
Published 10:06 pm, Sunday, September 27, 2009
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The recession led to a sharp increase over the past year in residents seeking help from the town's Department of Social Services, according to information compiled by the department for its annual report.

Between July 2008 and June 2009, 2,636 residents sought help, up from 2,176 the previous year. About 60 percent were children, families and adults, while 40 percent were seniors.

Victoria Anyikwa, social services commissioner, said high unemployment and the housing market crash led people who normally would not seek public assistance to ask for help.

Over the past year, there was a high demand for energy assistance, and many clients were referred to Neighbor to Neighbor, the food pantry, Anyikwa said. Some people also sought financial assistance. The department can provide people with money to pay certain expenses, such as an electric bill, if they bring in documentation proving need.

In a sign of the economic times and the town's high cost of living, some people came in asking for help in paying high rents of up to $3,000. The department currently provides a maximum of $600.

Anyikwa said people looking for more money than the department could provide were referred to other programs, such as food pantries and energy assistance, to help them save in other areas.

"It's basically trying to help them prioritize and just figure out how to manage from one month to the next," Anyikwa said.

In the 2009 fiscal year, the department saw the highest number of clients in the past seven years.

The numbers don't necessarily indicate a recovery is well underway, Anyikwa said. The department saw about 400 more clients this past June than July 2008.

In response to the high numbers of people seeking help, the department organized an event at Town Hall in March that brought together two dozen agencies offering programs or assistance on things such as accessing health insurance and handling an eviction.

Since Anyikwa was hired in 2006, the department has been working to collect more information on the services it provides and its clients. The Board of Social Services recently started analyzing clients and their demographics, which groups are expected to grow and how that will affect policies and services. Policy changes are expected by the end of the year.

The department had been under scrutiny years ago for not providing enough information on the services it provided, duplicating those services available at other agencies and having too large a staff. Former First Selectman Jim Lash had suggested the department wasn't necessary. Anyikwa said despite recent budget cuts, her department fared well, losing only one full-time caseworker position.

First Selectman Peter Tesei said the department, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next month, has been a valuable resource for the town as residents began feeling the effects of the economic crisis.

"Clearly they're seeing people who previously, under different economic circumstances, would not be calling upon the town's Department of Social Services for assistance," Tesei said. "I think that's indicative of the world we're living in and a testament that it does affect everybody."

Tesei said Anyikwa has consistently shared information on the department's client volume and the services they need during monthly department head meetings.

"We are one of the few municipalities that actually have a Department of Social Services," Tesei said. "It's "¦ another attribute that makes Greenwich stand out."

Staff Writer Lisa Chamoff can be reached at lisa.chamoff@scni.com or 203-625-4439.