Representatives from two nonprofit agencies that help low-income and vulnerable Vermonters with civil cases, Legal Services Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid, will be in the city at the end of the month to hear from the community about the needs and challenges in the state.
The Rutland visit will be on Oct. 30 at the Community College of Vermont from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Sam Abel-Palmer, executive director of Legal Services Vermont, said his agency and Vermont Legal Aid are partner agencies who “work very closely together.”
All of the services are free for those people who the agencies agree to represent and both receive grant funding but Abel-Palmer said those funders want to agencies to periodically review their operations and meet with residents to be sure they’re using their resources to best serve their communities.
“As with every other similar agency across the country, we don’t remotely have enough resources to meet all the needs that are out there,” he said.
Between phone calls and online requests, Abel-Palmer said the agencies hear from about 20,000 to 25,000 Vermonters a year looking for help.
“We have a staff of maybe 40 lawyers all together to address that need. We can’t do it all so we have to make priority decisions. What are the things that we’re going to put our resources toward that it’s going to be the most effective and try to help the most people we can with the resources that we have” Abel-Palmer said.
David Koeninger, deputy director of Vermont Legal Aid, said the visits across Vermont help people at his agency and Legal Services Vermont, establish “in our collective mindset a set of priorities.”
“We do a lot of housing work, we do a lot of government benefits work, we do a variety of different things, we do some family law, but we want to make sure we’re not getting sort of isolated in our offices and forgetting what’s really important to folks in the community,” he said.
Koeninger said he expected housing issues, a perennial concern for low-income Vermonters, would be discussed but said he also hopes attendees will talk about any problems that “particularly accentuate people’s economic distress” like barriers to employment or access to health care.
Abel-Palmer said the agencies also do a lot of work in Burlington and Montpelier so they wanted to be sure they talked to people in Southern Vermont.
“The biggest thing I’d say that we’re looking to get out of these meetings is to really hear from the people who haven’t for one reason or another been able to access our services or where we said, ‘We really can’t help with this kind of issue.’ We want to speak face-to-face with people and hear, what are their struggles, what is it that legal problem they feel they are not able to address, what support they need. We’ve got some ideas of what that is but we want to do a reality check with people across the state,” he said.
Another concern Koeninger hopes to address is the danger of regionalization. He said he hopes the meetings will help the agencies’ leaders find out if the issues that are important in Chittenden County are the same as those in the southern part of the state.
Abel-Palmer estimated the last “big push” to hear from people across the state was about four years ago.
Koeninger said that effort was just before he joined Vermont Legal Aid but he remembered the staff working with the information that had been gathered in order to set priorities.
After the meetings, Abel-Palmer said that he will help write a report that will be created to document what the participants learned. He said those reports will also be used by the agencies’ boards to set priorities for the next year.
Legal Services Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid will be meeting with people in Room 102 at the Rutland campus of CCV on Oct. 30.
They will also be in Bennington, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. the same day at the Bennington campus of the Community College of Vermont in Room 152 and in Brattleboro, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 4 at the Community College of Vermont in Room 271.
For those who can’t attend the meeting in person, a form has been made available to share thoughts with the nonprofits at www.surveymonkey.com/r/RFP92YQ.