The Access Community Action Agency Mobile Food Pantry.

For nearly 60 years, community action agencies (CAAs) have worked to address and reduce the causes and conditions of poverty by providing comprehensive case management services and application assistance for social service programs to the state’s poorest residents. CAAs connect low- and moderate-income people of all ages, in all 169 cities and towns, with resources that stabilize and improve lives and communities. These services and resources include, but are not limited to, food, shelter, heating assistance, employment and training, asset development, and early childhood care and education.

Deb Polun

Based on what we have seen over the past nine months, the Community Action Agency network is recommending that state policymakers establish a flexible client support fund to help our friends and neighbors through the pandemic.

When COVID-19 hit, our CAAs remained open for business and quickly adjusted to ensure the continued provision of services for their customers and those affected by the pandemic. Their innovative and nimble approach reassured people during shutdowns by providing more services via phone and email; helping people access unemployment benefits when American Job Centers and the Department of Labor sites were closed; transitioning from the congregate meals program to all home-delivered meals for seniors, which allowed them to stay home and receive nutritious food; offering childcare to the children of first responders in local hospitals; and addressing food insecurity by partnering on local food distribution events.

These are just a few examples of how CAAs provided outreach and community services through creative means during the pandemic and continue to do so today. Six of our CAAs are serving as Community Resource Coordinators, helping hundreds of people in quarantine stay home and stay safe by ensuring they have access to the services and goods they need.

Some people need groceries or medications delivered, or just a check-in call; others need help accessing medical appointments or getting signed up for assistance programs. CAAs work with each person to meet those needs, allowing them to stay home, thereby helping the whole community. Because food, housing and other issues are so tied to health, CAA staff at every agency are cross trained as community health workers, focusing on addressing social and structural determinants of health, as well as improving health outcomes.

And so, we have seen that countless residents across the state continue to be adversely impacted by COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn. CAAs are seeing many first-time customers, people who have never needed help before, coming to ask for help with food, diapers, housing, or other needs. Some are eligible for (and we enroll them into) state or federal programs, like SNAP food assistance or LIHEAP heating assistance. Federal and state policy changes have enhanced many assistance programs, which has helped tens of thousands of Connecticut residents. But, others, especially the working poor, are just over income for these programs – yet still in need.

That is why Connecticut’s Community Action Agencies propose that the State establish a flexible Client Support Fund, with $5 million of state and/or federal funds, to be administered by the CAAs. With a flexible Client Support Fund, CAAs and their essential workforce can provide individualized support to people in need – helping to ensure they do not fall through the cracks, and instead are able to sustain themselves during this public health crisis. For example, someone may need new tires on their car in order to get to work – there are no assistance programs for that currently, but we all want to help people get and stay employed. Others may have accrued high amounts of back-owed rent due or need funds for new clothing for their growing children. With a flexible pot of funds – which would be responsibly managed and tracked – CAAs could help meet the unique needs of people in their communities.

We are all adjusting to the pandemic as well as we can. But we know that many of our neighbors are experiencing various needs that are so far unmet. While we don’t know how long the pandemic will last, we do know that vital resources like a Client Support Fund can be crucial in helping all of us get through tough times like these and come out the other side. We ask that the state partner with us in these efforts in 2021 and beyond.

Deb Polun is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA), the state association for Connecticut’s nine Community Action Agencies, the state and federally designated antipoverty agencies covering all 169 cities and towns. CAFCA is a proud member of the National Community Action Partnership.

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