If shutdown goes on, ‘tough choices’ foreseen here

Two of Connecticut’s federal lawmakers received an education Friday, Jan. 18, in how the federal government shutdown — now more than 30 days in — will impact some of this area’s most needy.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes — both Connecticut Democrats — donated boxes of food to Shelton-based Spooner House — the mission of which is to provide food, shelter and support services to people in need — and learned from the non-profit’s executive director, Susan Agamy, that an extended shutdown would be dire for those already desperate for services.

“We are asking people who struggle anyway to budget even more carefully,” said Agamy. “Food stamps are to supplement, not to cover all of it. The folks we’re seeing are in difficult financial situations, and certainly not able to make ends meet. Three quarters of our pantry clients receive SNAP benefits, yet they still need assistance with food.”

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as food stamps — assistance checks arrive this week for those who qualify. If the shutdown continues, Agamy said the impact remains unknown.

“People are being forced to make tough choices, do I buy food or pay the electric bill, or do I get medication or do I pay for the bus pass to get to and from work?” said Agamy. “These are tough choices, so if we can help ease that burden, provide food, great. Maybe we can offer energy assistance or refer to other agencies that can help them.

“The value of someone listening and caring cannot be underestimated,” added Agamy. “People are not coming here just because they want a hand out, people coming because they need assistance.”

Himes told Agamy when he arrived the morning of Friday, Jan. 18, that his purpose was to learn about Spooner House’s food pantry and shelter operations and understand how the shutdown would impact those on SNAP benefits

Spooner House typically shelters 30 to 35 people at a time, and, at present, it is holding its no freeze operation emergency overnight for walk-ins, and Agamy said that program can average some seven individuals a night.

The food pantry serves 150 households a month and between 3,000 to 5,000 individuals a year. Some people come each month — and those individuals receive enough food for 10 days once  a month, based on household size and the ages of people in the household.

“You need to recognize that 95% of the food distributed is donated, not purchased,” said Agamy. “We stretch every dollar we have as far as we can.”

And while the food pantry now sits full, Agamy said the shutdown — with the potential for Spooner House to even aid federal workers not collecting checks as well as its regular clientele — could severely slash its food supply, making the need for more donations an urgent one.

“We do not have enough,” said Agamy. “We’re going to need donations to meet the need.  We’re planning on seeing an uptick either in the number of people, or people needing more assistance. If the shutdown continues, we’ll see a huge increase in people needing assistance.”

And Himes said that even if the shutdown ends today, the economic impact on those in need as well as federal employees could last for weeks, even months.

To participate in Spooner House’s program, federal employees must bring their employee ID or pay stub from the last quarter of 2018 and complete an application. Since Spooner is aware that the employees may still be reporting to work even though they are not being paid, a family member may pick up the food.

Although Agamy said Spooner has set aside Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for federal employees to use the food bank, they can come anytime.

“It’s not like the shutdown ends and all of a sudden the sun comes out,” said Blumenthal. “The effects will be enduring for some period of time. This is a financial disaster for anyone not being paid.”

Blumenthal said one “silver lining to this cloud” would be people becoming more aware of places like Spooner House and the social safety net that exists for those in need.

“I believe that is one of the positive effects that will last long after this crisis is over … that we’re all in this together,” said Agamy. “So many people go paycheck to paycheck. They are one medical crisis or one job loss away from needing assistance.”

Himes said he and Blumenthal are among those attempting to dispel the negative notion about government.

“People say government can’t do anything right,” said Himes, “well, no, it keeps the planes safe, it keeps people eating, it keeps people in places like this (Spooner House). The silver lining here is people will see and say, wow, when government isn’t working, bad things happen.”

The shutdown has left 800,000 federal employees without weekly. Blumenthal said Transportation Security Administration workers at Bradley International Airport told him they are going to the Food Share pantry in Hartford for help.

“These are people who said they never envisioned seeking help from a food bank are now forced to do so,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal said there are enough votes in Washington to send an end-the-shutdown bill to President Donald Trump. But the Senator said it is up to Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, to call for a vote.

“All he needs to do is ask us to return in 24 hours,” Blumenthal said. “I know I will be there.”

But in the meantime, Agamy said Spooner House will continue to assist all those in need, as it always has, in the Valley area.

“People don’t come to a food pantry because they want to, they come because they need to,” said Agamy. “As the shutdown continues, we will be looking for more food and cash donations. This will be a test of the community coming together for all the agencies, not just ours. We don’t have the luxury of shutting down. We need to remain prepared to help those who need it most.”