WESTERLY — One by one, members of the Basic Needs Network discussed the issues their clients face each day. Insufficient public transportation, a lack of mental health providers, and wages too low to pay for food, utilities and rent topped the list.
The network, a loose conglomerate of social service agencies and churches, meets once a month in the basement of Grace United Methodist Church to share resources and avoid duplication. Normally, they speak among themselves, but on Tuesday they were hoping their voices would reach all the way to Providence.
Ken Block, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, attended the meeting to hear about the issues facing South County residents. Russ Partridge, leader of the network and executive director of Westerly’s WARM Center, issued an invitation to all candidates in November’s gubernatorial race to attend a meeting. Block was the first to set a confirmed meeting date.
About 30 people, representing almost as many agencies and churches, related their most pressing issues.
Dee Freitas of the Jonnycake Center of Westerly said her agency has been averaging 40 new clients a month lately. Some of them can’t get to the center for help because they don’t have a working car or they can’t afford to buy gasoline. She has some clients who walk miles to use the food pantry, and then leave without a full order because they can only carry so much.
“It’s definitely an ongoing issue that we’re seeing,” she said.
Noella Blackwell of the WARM Center echoed the increasing amount of need in the community, and blamed it on a lack of work opportunities in the area. “The jobs aren’t there to sustain housing, the pay isn’t there,” she said.
Between winter and June, she said, the center helped 133 households to stay in their homes by helping with bills.
“We went through a great deal of money this winter on fuel oil,” she noted.
Cindy Gardiner of Wood River Health Services in Hope Valley said she makes many referrals to South Shore Mental Health Center, which has offices in Westerly, Charlestown, Wakefield and North Kingstown, but the need is so great there is a two-month wait for appointments.
She also said the lack of public transportation has been detrimental to her clients. Some clients have had trouble keeping their medical appointments because they can’t get to the Hope Valley center. Another example she gave is that if someone requests a hearing with National Grid about a bill, they have to go to Pawtucket, and there is no direct bus service between Westerly and Pawtucket.
“Getting services down in our area is a problem,” she said.
The Rhode Island Community Food Bank in Providence feeds 63,000 people a month statewide, said Mev Miller, and a third of them are children. The agencies she works with have seen former donors become their clients.
Partridge noted that transportation to get to job training and jobs is necessary to get people out of poverty. Without access to them, “we’re continuing to spin our wheels,” he said.
After listening to the needs of the group, Block discussed how Rhode Island needs to turn around its economy in order to pay for these necessary services.
“We have to get our financial house in order,” he told the group. He noted that the state is estimated to face a $150 million deficit at the end of this fiscal year, and a more than $400 million deficit in about four or five years. “That budget deficit threatens everything we do.”
However, he said there are some steps that can be taken now to divert money to social services.
“There’s a ton of savings to be had, but we have really horrible systems,” he said.
Medicaid is one of those systems, he said. Government estimates, which he assumed are conservative, are that about 7 percent, or $140 million, of state funds spent on Medicaid are lost to waste and fraud. In a great year, he added, about $10 million is recovered.
Another system is SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits, Block said. Too much SNAP money intended for food purchases is used for other items, he said.
A third example that he gave was fire departments. The state has only 39 towns but there are over 60 fire districts. Having multiple fire districts in one town is 19th-century thinking, he said, and the departments should consolidate.
“We have to evolve,” he told the group. “There’s a lot of work we have to do.”
Block also said he believes the root cause of many of the state’s social service problems is a deficient education system.
“Too many children fall through the educational cracks,” he said. “We have kids who start kindergarten behind grade and never catch up.”
Some students, he said, receive high school diplomas without learning the skills necessary to be successful, and as a result, “We are graduating children into a lifetime of dependency.”
“Please be optimistic,” he said. “There’s a way to fix this.”
Speaking after the meeting, he said his goal is to reduce the need for social services by providing better education and services to Rhode Island’s youth.
“You’re really behind the 8-ball when you have to remediate adults,” he said.
Partridge said the meeting achieved the group’s goal — “to have somebody sit and listen.”
Although a few other candidates have responded to his offer, none have yet set a firm date to appear. Partridge said he hopes to “get them to listen one at a time. That’s the best we can do.”