Liaisons: Newport Wireless Mesh, Rutland Area NAACP, Neighborworks of Rutland
The following summarized comments are the opinions and observations of Elderly and Northeast Kingdom community members in the Summer of 2020.
“All the main things in life conspire together to make it very difficult for the poor. The big ones: transportation, housing, food, and medical, there’s four or five of them. And so if you’re well to do you’re comfortable and secure, you’re not well to do you’re uncomfortable and insecure.”
“We have to recognize the humanity in each other, and that’s what organizing is all about, right? It’s teaching people to love each other again. Love your brother as yourself.”
Environment (Air/Water/Waste/Outdoor Access)
- Participants expressed concern with how Climate Change will affect the tourism industry due to lower snowfall levels.
- Clean water was a concern to many, there was shared knowledge of worsening pollutants in their water but unsure where or how to get water tests for lead, PFAS, etc.
“I’ve lived in this house for over 45 years, and nobody’s ever came to test.”
- Concern that ground water issues are not visible:
“I guess one of the continuing environmental issues in the city is nothing that’s really visible and it only surfaces when it hits the newspaper and that is ground pollution, soil pollution, leaking chemicals, leaking underground oil tanks, those kinds of things are continual concern.”
- During pandemic, water tests were going out of state, costing more, and sometimes samples were going bad. Municipal water operator in NEK went above and beyond to secure new testing laboratories and chemical providers, and received recognition from Vermont Water Association.
- Elderly participant concerned about neighbor’s wood burning stove for heat, even in the winter the smoke travels through their windows and affects their asthma.
- Air quality and respiratory issues in Rutland are a major concern. Participants cited pollutants in the air as a major contributor to poor health outcomes, including indoor air quality and mold:
“Rutland has a long history of having more heart disease than the whole state. And I’m wondering if that is because Rutland is bowl shaped that is almost totally encircled by hills and mountains. And so when I say people are burning, burning, smoky fires or whatever, it doesn’t have it doesn’t go away and dissipate as much.”
“It’s the environmental issues, the environmental factors that are the causes of our higher rate of these respiratory diseases so they would be, the conditions of the home, and the conditions of our air. The pollutants in the air is a major contributor, so is poverty, lack of affordable healthy housing, circumstances in the home, mold, other issues that go on in homes that are under maintained, and smoking.”
- Participants expressed concern with waste overflow:
“Municipalities let their stormwater and septic, let them overflow and go into the lakes and rivers, that’s a problem there’s all sorts of problems.”
- Many elderly people and people on disability were concerned about affording to live on a fixed income.
“Money does run out at some point, and you never know when it’s gonna run out. Number one, you try to do stuff yourself. And if you’re not in great physical condition, a lot of stuff, you just can’t do, you have to pay somebody else to do it.”
- People in the NEK discussed the importance of community building to empower themselves and their neighbors. Community spaces that provide access to the internet and informational resources were appreciated by all participants. They have struggled to obtain grant funding for these spaces:
“We don’t necessarily need to rely on professionals. There’s a lot we can do for people that are just plain cracking under the stress that we can do as a community.”
- Some people with mental health issues reported not being able to hold down a job.
- Programs to help people find work are needed. One participant described working through a program with the state that assisted aging people who worked their whole lives in physical careers, like farming, roofing, restaurants etc. The program gave them 20 hours of paid work and skill development:
“They had a really hard time figuring out how to survive until they got to be old enough to get social security. That was their driving force.”
“Once their body goes to heck, what do they do with themselves? And there’s not an advocate for them.”
- This same participant is on Social Security and Disability, and would like to continue with this program, but couldn’t during the pandemic because “Going out in public on a daily basis I think would be too much for me.”
- Rental/Land Assistance organizations put safety precautions in place immediately. Some employees had to continue to come into the office due to lack of reliable internet at home, but masks were required in the office and in the field:
“If the homeowner is not willing to wear a mask we don’t go into that home, because I don’t want anybody employed by us to be at risk.”
Food & Transportation
- Only receiving $25 in food stamps felt disrespectful and not even worth the difficulty of paperwork:
“The cost of internet is one 10th of their income. They have to pay such high rental in their apartments that by the time they pay rent and internet, there’s not enough for food.”
- Transportation to and from the grocery store was an issue for many. Several elderly participants expressed fear over going to the store due to health concerns. Shopping behavior was altered: an elderly participant described the increased burden of going to the grocery store fewer times per month: she was buying larger loads of groceries. Her husband has a shoulder injury so she had difficulty pushing around in the cart and loading and unloading her groceries, especially in the winter:
“I think the food situation, although we’ve gotten some financial help, because of the corona, the actual getting the stuff and getting it in your home. And that has been harder.”
- Participants from Randolph described the community transportation options, such as the Stagecoach transportation system, which takes people to hospitals and grocery stores.
- Neighbor to neighbor assistance varied based on neighborhood. Some participants described helpful neighbors offering to go shopping for them, others did not have any support from their neighborhood. Online ordering was not preferred, and people with food allergies were concerned about the food substitutions made by the store.
- Food delivery from assistance programs were appreciated, however the quality of the food was lacking “You get a lot of tomato sauce and pasta.”
- People with health conditions need to eat healthy food, symptoms worsen when they eat more processed food.
- Specific resources that were helpful: NACA, churches, community gardens, Veggie Van Go, Community Health Connect.
“I’m not opposed to a sliding scale of people paying something for this, I really have felt that there are so many people in this state who can only really, physically handle part time work. And they need to have guaranteed insurance. And there’s people on welfare that I’ve known, that don’t take work because they cannot lose the Medicaid that they’ve had. Or they can’t get a raise at work because if they do they lose their health insurance for their whole family.”
- Participants were passionate about the need for universal healthcare. Those with Medicare understood the need for and appreciated the supplemental government support with affording healthcare.
“I don’t know how anybody—you need to either be really, really poor or really, really rich. There’s a great majority of us who are right in the middle. It is horrendous what the cost of medical care is.”
- Extra safety precautions due to Covid-19 put many at greater risk of other worsening health conditions. Tele-medicine was useful to some but had many limitations:
“You tend to want to shy away from problems and not care for them, even if you have insurance now, because it involves being out in the world where you may leave with your problem and come back worse off than when you left. I’m putting my life at stake, and it’s not getting better.”
- Several older participants accessed healthcare through a concierge service, which they preferred.
- Health + Transportation:
- Greyhound bus from NEK to White River Junction VA Hospital, Dartmouth Hitchcock, Burlington, or Boston no longer runs, difficult to get to doctor’s appointments or get prescriptions filled.
“Restoration of bus lines to Burlington and to White River, I think is the primary thing that would help me apart from more internet access.”
- United Way had free transportation available to people traveling to medical appointments from Rutland to Dartmouth.
- Mental Health:
- Compounding stressors of the pandemic worsened mental health and access to healthcare. Participants reported a noted increase in suicides and murders.
“With the DMV being closed, we can’t even get licenses or register vehicles or anything like that. And when you need to go to the doctor, you know, you’re afraid of getting pulled over, your anxiety is off the charts.”
- Existing mental health care is inadequate, and several participants felt like their economic status affected the level of mental health care they received:
“The policy is to diagnose the person, a poor marginal person like you as being a mental case, even though the clinical evidence shows differently.”
“The psychiatric drugs from when I was a child, of course, they made it worse, all the worst things you’ve heard about those drugs, you can double them. It’s not just conspiracy theory. But they are the experts.”
- Expressed a need for Community Health, that anxiety, stress, and physiological factors are being ignored and not treated at the source:
“A lot of these things are ordinary and normal in human beings. If you give people what they need, they won’t crack under the stress.”
Housing & Energy
“I feel that when it comes down to it, having safe and clean housing is the main thing that stabilizes people’s lives.”
- People in the Northeast Kingdom described being charged late fees on their property taxes during the pandemic:
“When my husband went to speak with a city manager, she was inaccessible and wasn’t taking phone calls and then went on vacation and then charged us another late fee for the day she was on vacation where she wasn’t accessible to have a discussion. City manager said, “You don’t even have it that bad, there are people way worse off than you. There are many elderly in the town that I work with, to do a payment plan for their delinquent late fees.”
- Elderly homeowners reported difficulty in finding help to repair and maintain their home, including leaf and snow removal:
“We should be training carpenters and electricians at a higher rate than we are and we should be licensing them. And the city should be much more concerned with coming in and making sure that if you’re paying someone that they’re doing the job that needs to be done so that it’s done correctly.”
- One issue in the home leads to another. One participant’s current floor tile is a tripping hazard for elderly homeowners, but they are fearful of updating their kitchen because it might disturb the asbestos tiles in the floor:
“We don’t want to give up our home. But we don’t have a lot of other help to make sure that these things be done for us.”
- Helpful organizations & programs: Brock – energy audits & insulation, Neighborworks – weatherization & housing upgrades
- The income limits on government programs is overly restrictive. One participant asked their employer for a $3 deduction on their hourly rate so they could receive Medicaid and more than $25 of food stamps per month. Their employer denied this request:
“So we really suffered. And this whole idea of insurance, tied to your job is crazy. Because all these people with all these stores and businesses that are going out of business, not only do they have to worry about what are they going to have for money or how are they going to pay their bills, they no longer have insurance.”
- Many expressed fear of being put in a nursing home. They do not want to get to a point where they resent having to live in an assisted living situation. They are concerned that those living situations are cramped, their freedoms are restricted, and health hazards are more prevalent.
- Concerns over quality of housing, questions arose about landlord’s responsibility to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy, what that process entails, and if it considers environmental health including indoor air quality.
- Need for smaller housing options
“There’s just not much not much available in that spectrum ($100-300k) that’s kind of decent. That makes it prohibitive for a lot of different people.”
Emergency Communications & Equal Access
- Internet access was extremely limited for many in the Northeast Kingdom. People relied on community centers and library parking lots to access the internet. One NEK participant drove 40 minutes to a location with service in order to join this call.
- Some participants were unclear where to get Covid tests, receiving mixed messages of whether or not you need an appointment, whether the tests were free
- Information was gathered and shared throughout the pandemic in a variety of ways:
- Vermont Digger updated daily on where free tests were available
- Flyers in key locations, limited access to internet
- Community centers for internet
“It is even more isolating in terms of access to your city government, access to public meetings, access to minutes. It’s extremely frustrating that unless you have internet you can’t access government, not your local government, which is your town municipality, not your state government, and certainly not your central government.”
- Even well connected community members don’t know where to find environmental information:
“I don’t have difficulty for myself accessing the information I need, or have needed. If there were an environmental issue, I might have a little more trouble, but I suspect that through my legal colleagues who are still working, or local offices with people I’ve dealt with over the years, I can do that. If there were an issue, if there were a pollution issue, or something of that nature.”
- General observation: These REJOICE conversations gave community members opportunities to share information and resources with each other. Community conversations lead to a more informed public.
Summary compiled by: Jennifer Byrne, Fellow Environmental Justice Clinic Vermont Law School REJOICE 2021