Gathering data, crafting plan

Promise Communities looks at housing

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

Just
The Facts

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ST.  ALBANS CITY — Although the Franklin Promise Community meeting on June 1 revolved around evaluating data on pregnancy, housing and other topics, it wasn’t just an exercise in spreadsheets. It all boiled down to a central question, as phrased by Promise Community “coach” Mark McMillen: “How does this communicate our mission?”

The mission statement says their job is to “collaborate with families, caregivers and organizations to support strengthening families, so that children thrive, communities flourish and families have healthy relationships.” Governor Peter Shumlin launched the Promise Community initiative in February of last year, basing the program on New York City’s productive Harlem Children’s Zone.

Once a Promise Community creates an action plan — for which the Franklin group will soon be strategizing — the represented community is eligible for up to $200,000 of financial support to implement that plan.

So when, at Wednesday’s meeting, the group read aloud statistics from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring Service (PRAMS), a project of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it wasn’t enough to simply jot down the facts. McMillen asked the assembled community members, 12 in total, to judge how well each collection of facts communicated the Promise Community’s mission, how useful each fact-finding organization might be as a proxy and how representative and productive each data set might prove.

Even as simple, cold facts, the statistics studied by the group are striking. Looking over the state’s PRAMS data, they read that only 49 percent of mothers not looking to get pregnant used contraception, that 40 percent of births were unintended pregnancies and that 14 percent of pregnant women drank alcohol during their last trimester of pregnancy.

Ten percent of those mothers-to-be didn’t have money to buy sufficient amounts of food at some point in their pregnancy. Twenty-two percent experienced “potentially traumatic stress,” including homelessness for 4 percent.

The facts weren’t all gloom and doom, though — case in point, 76 percent of women who smoked in the months before their pregnancy repeatedly tried smoking cessation courses upon becoming pregnant.

Even those less uplifting statistics didn’t bring down Promise Community members, who are focused on creating a representative narrative from what McMillen called “just the facts, ma’am.”

At this week’s meeting, that narrative turned to homelessness. Franklin County’s story, in this case, is not too bleak. The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO)’s Jen Stewart told the tale, first the CVOEO’s part in the story — the organization provides information and referrals about housing options in the area, aids residents in their housing search and in completing rental applications and educates people as to their rights as tenants, as well as the responsibilities of their landlords.

“The bulk of what we do is financial assistance to keep people housed or get people into housing,” Stewart said. “If a family has an eviction notice and we can help give them money to keep that housing, that’s keeping the child in the same household, in the same school district, keeping them stable and easing stress on family. The money we give them isn’t just going to landlord, but also into their budget, so they can buy heat or buy more food. It goes back into the community.”

Stewart said local poverty “is widespread, but not deep” — although the average income of clients seeking CVOEO’s aid is only 40 percent of the poverty line, 80 percent of those granted financial assistance do not return in the future. “People who can get assistance to maintain their housing will generally be stabilized and won’t come back again,” Stewart said.

The program disbursed more than $500,000 to families, within its service area, with children eight years old or younger from 2014 until now.

Stewart said Franklin County has one percent vacant housing, a low figure. Five percent is considered a healthy average.

Robert Ostermeyer, the executive director of Franklin-Grand Isle Community Action, said CVOEO’s Housing Opportunity Program, or HOP, has served 558 households in the St. Albans area.

Promise Community members overwhelmingly voted the HOP data highly communicative, representative and informative, keeping the statistics in mind as they move toward their initial strategizing at their June 20 meeting.

“When we as Promise Communities look at strategies,” said Deb Grennon, of the Franklin County Bookmobile, “we want the strategy that’ll turn the biggest curve for our mission.”