ST. ALBANS — The federal government shutdown is creating a period of financial uncertainty for programs serving some of the community’s most vulnerable residents.

Meals on Wheels, the program which provides hot meals to elderly and disabled citizens, is running on reserve funds, as are the state’s domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.

Anticipating the crisis, state officials recommended agencies draw down funds from federal grants before Oct. 1, explained Sarah Kenney, of the Vermont Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Those funds have enabled shelters to keep their doors open.

“We can probably make it through the end of the month,” said Kenney.

The Office of Preventative Justice, which administers grants provided to victim programs through the Violence Against Women Act, closed its doors on Friday.

Nationally, reports of shelters closing their doors are beginning to trickle in to the media.

“We didn’t have to close shelters last week, but there’s very little wiggle room in anyone’s budget,” said Kenney.

Locally, Laurie’s House and Voices Against Violence executive director Kris Lukens said there were sufficient funds to keep Laurie’s House open in the short term. However, one victim’s advocate had to be let go when funding for the position did not come through in time.

“The closing of shelters will most definitely jeopardize the safety of survivors and their children across the county and I shudder to think what ramifications this will have,” Lukens said in an e-mail to the Messenger.

The shutdown comes when many domestic and sexual violence programs have reduced cash reserves as a result of sequestration, the federal budget cuts agreed to during the last budget crisis. “Sequestration has been taking a financial toll for some time so nobody really has financial reserves,” said Kenney. “Things have been getting tighter and tighter for a number of years.”

Moreover, many survivors of domestic violence rely on government programs that are also operating on either reserve funds or carryover funds from last year, including the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), noted Kenney. [See accompanying information for more details on the status of the government’s social service programs.]

“The shutdown needs to end and sequestration needs to be replaced with a more reasonable way of trimming budgets,” said Kenney, pointing out that cuts fell most heavily on the most vulnerable citizens.

 Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels programs in the region are also operating on a reserve funds and providing fewer meals as a result of sequester, according to Zoe Hardy, nutrition director for the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging (CVAA).

“If the shutdown does continue long term, it could have a devastating impact,” said Hardy.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” said Jim Coutts of the Franklin County Senior Center, which operates the St. Albans area Meals on Wheels program. The senior center also provides sit down meals for seniors with a recommended donation.

At this point, it’s unclear how long CVAA will be able to operate on reserves. “We’re in wait and see mode,” said Hardy. “We’ll provide meals for as long as we are able.”

The Meals on Wheels programs have been able to create reserves because of the generosity of volunteers; many of them deliver meals without any form of recompense, including mileage reimbursement, according to Hardy.

Meals on Wheels already has been impacted by sequestration. Several of the programs CVAA had been providing brown bag dinners to recipients along with the hot lunch. The dinners had to be discontinued as a result of the sequester.

Because of the sequester, Hardy estimates CVAA programs have served 20,000 fewer meals.

In September 2012, CVAA Meals on Wheels programs served 245,915 meals in Franklin, Chittenden, Grand Isle and Addison counties, as well as 111,397 sit-down meals.

Costs are always increasing, said Hardy, but the government is providing fewer funds. “That’s an ongoing concern for us,” she said.

By helping seniors remain in their homes and not in a nursing home or hospital, Meals on Wheels saves the government money, noted Hardy.