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Agency leaders look to fight poverty, boost opportunities in community

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 15 May 2015 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – Ed Fancher, executive director of Community Action of Orleans & Genesee, addresses about 40 human service professionals about challenges for low-income residents in the community. He is joined at a table of panelists by Nathan Varland (left) of Community Action and Paul Pettit, public health director in Genesee and Orleans counties.

ALBION – About 40 leaders of local agencies met this week to discuss poverty and other challenges in Orleans and Genesee counties.

These are problems that are decades in the making, and will take a long-term commitment to improve.

“This is a marathon,” said Paul Pettit, the public health director for the two counties. “We didn’t create these issues overnight. We’re looking for incremental steps. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort.”

Pettit was one of the panelists during the annual joint meeting of the Genesee County Interagency Council and the Orleans County Human Services Council. The 40 human service professionals met at the Care Net Pregnancy and Family Center in Albion, in a meeting led by Marsha Rivers, executive director of the United Way of Orleans County. She is also past president of the Orleans County Human Services Council.

Nathan Varland, director of Housing and Support Services for Community Action of Orleans & Genesee, shared highlights of the agency’s community needs assessment, a 200-plus page document.

Some highlights from the report:

The two counties have shrinking youth populations but a growing number of senior citizens.

In Orleans, the number of people under age 5 dropped 16.7 percent from 2,747 in 2000 to 2,286 in 2010. The 5-19 age group shrank 15.1 percent, from 10,039 in 2000 to 8,522 in 2010. The 20-64 age group held steady, while the numbers of senior citizens (ages 65 and older) increased by 12.9 percent from 5,472 to 6,178.

Every school district in the two counties saw enrollment decline from 2004 to 2010.

Orleans and Genesee both saw their overall populations decrease from 2000 to 2010. However, both saw an increase in people in poverty. Orleans went from 4,731 in 2000 to 5,194 in 2010. Genesee was up from 5,038 in 2000 to 6,952 in 2010.

Nathan Varland from Community Action shares statistics from a recent community needs assessment that shows a growing number of people in poverty in the two counties. Other panelists include, from left: Erik Fix, director of United Way of Genesee County; Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian; and Ed Fancher, executive director of Community Action.

The poverty rate is far greater for people who are black – 40.4 percent in Genesee and 32.0 percent in Orleans. That compares to 11.2 percent of the white population in Genesee and 12.7 percent in Orleans.

In the two counties, nearly every school district saw an increase in students eligible for free and reduced lunch, Varland said.

There is more pressure on children to know more when they enter prekindergarten and kindergarten. Low-income children are more likely to be behind and have challenging behaviors, he said.

The number of child abuse/maltreatment cases has increased in both counties with Genesee going from 184 cases in 2006 to 223 in 2010. The cases in Orleans increased from 164 to 197 during those four years.

In regards to housing, 18 percent of housing units – 7,879 – in the two counties are considered substandard by the Housing and Urban Development. There is a significant need for home rehabilitation, especially with roofs.

Low-income residents and senior citizens have unmet transportation needs as well, especially after hours on weekdays an on weekends. Many poor residents who own a vehicle lack the money to repair it, according to the Community Action report.

The economy in Orleans County is stagnant compared to the rest of the state, while it is fairly healthy in Genesee County.

Marsha Rivers, executive director of the United Way of Orleans County, addresses the human service leaders during the meeting at the Care Net Pregnancy and Family Center in Albion. This space is the former cafeteria at Liptons in Albion.

There is growing demand in Orleans County for public assistance, help with utility payments, and requests for medical and prescription cost assistance.

The Batavia, Albion and Medina zip codes have large populations of low-income households.

Orleans County ranks 61st out of 62 counties in the state for worst health factors, which measure smoking rates, diet and exercise, alcohol use, risky sexual behavior and access to health care and other economic factors.

Pettit, the health department director in the two counties, said the agencies are working hard to meet many of the needs in the community.

“You guys are the answers to a lot of these problems,” he said.

Jim Moody, executive director for the Orleans Community Health Foundation, would like to see more funding for senior programs with that segment of the population rising.

“If you know where the dollars are, we’re looking for them,” Pettit said.

Genesee County is fortunate to have the Muriel Marshall Fund, a bequest that pays for many services for seniors, helping them to stay in their homes and have access to many services, Genesee County officials said.

Howard Owens, owner of The Batavian (an on-line news site in Genesee County), was one of the panelists. He said promoting entrepreneurship can be an effective way to lift people out of poverty and build a stronger community.

Some emerging entrepreneurs could use earned income tax credits to buy vendor carts and start their own businesses, he said.

I was also one of the panelists and I shared how the state gives so little in aid to villages, compared to cities. It is my opinion that this is a prime factor in the high taxes in the villages, which are chasing away residents and investment, resulting in declining housing stock, vacant homes and a struggling climate for small businesses.

I’ve written about the state aid disparity before (click here) and some of the villages, towns and the County Legislature have passed formal resolutions, asking the state for a fair formula for Aid and Incentives to Municipalities.

Marsha Rivers, the United Way executive director, is the former director at Care Net. She shared how every contribution, even pennies, can accumulate to benefit the community.

Care Net has an annual baby bottle drive, where supportors fill baby bottles with loose change. Some people tuck bigger contributions – $100 bills and checks – in the bottles. But most of the funds come from the donated coins. This year’s baby bottle fundraiser netted about $20,000.

“That shows that every little bit adds up,” Rivers said.