By Elizabeth Regan
June 17, 2020

NORWICH - It’s an unfortunate distinction: Norwich has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

In the face of this devastating reality, city officials and social service agencies are rolling out programs to provide individuals as well as businesses with financial assistance thanks to a half-million dollar grant through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The most recent Connecticut Department of Labor statistics show 18.3% of Norwich residents were unemployed in April, compared to 7.9% statewide and 14.7% nationally.

Norwich Community Development Director Kathryn Crees said the federal grant funding comes as protections put in place through executive orders by Gov. Ned Lamont are running out, like one from April that required landlords to provide a 60-day grace period for rent and prohibited them from beginning eviction proceedings before July 1.

It’s a move that could end up putting renters in crisis, Crees said.

“While they might have had a stay from paying it, in the end it’s still due,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developmentin in May announced an additional $1 billion in coronavirus relief for states through the CARES Act, with Norwich’s share of the funding amounting to $506,569. The Norwich City Council on Monday authorized a grant framework that will spread the money across two city departments and several social service agencies.

A small business assistance program administered through the city’s Community Development department will control $219,569, while the Human Services department’s Norwich CARES program was allocated $200,000 to provide relief to individuals and families.

Lee-Ann Gomes, human services director, said people who can demonstrate that they lost income due to the pandemic can apply for funding to cover such expenses as rent, car payments, utility bills, and food.

“It’s devastating, the calls that we’re hearing,” she said.

She said the department hopes to help 250 Norwich families through the program.

She attributed the high unemployment rate to the temporary closure of the casinos, which employ a high percentage of workers from Norwich.

Both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos opened June 1 in limited capacities after being shuttered for more than two months.

Gomes credited leaders of both casinos with working to keep employees on the payroll for as long as possible and leaving medical benefits intact, but said Foxwoods was “really outstanding” at supporting its workers.

“I love Rodney Butler, and that’s a direct quote,” Gomes said of the Mashantucket Pequot chairman whose tribe operates Foxwoods.

Gomes noted the human services department also received $25,000 from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut to help people who have lost their jobs, including undocumented workers.

While the federal government prohibits the department from extending CARES Act funds to anyone who is not a documented citizen or permanent resident, Gomes said the Community Foundation will help fill the void.

“We have many undocumented people here who are hard working. I talked to somebody who was in construction and lost his job; I talked to somebody who was in housekeeping and lost her job. They, too, are behind on their rent, and we don’t want to see them become homeless in Norwich,” she said. “So the Community Foundation is very much into diversity and inclusion, and we will be able to help those people with that pot of money.”

The city is working with partners including Thames Valley Council for Community Action, Catholic Charities and Reliance House to find people in need of help. Those who don’t already have a relationship with a social service provider can contact the Norwich Human Services Department to be lined up with a case worker who can help them through the application.

Gomes said the department is working to distribute aid quickly and efficiently using what she described as a “smart approach.”

The process will include pointed questions, like how applicants spent their federal stimulus check and whether they made more money on unemployment than they did while they were working - “because that may not be the person we need to help first,” Gomes said.

She said she will also be compiling statistics to show how the funding benefitted the city as a whole. The working theory, as she described it, is that helping to stabilize individual residents will enable more people to pay their taxes, which in turn will keep city services funded so employees - like teachers, police officers and social workers - can continue to educate, protect and advocate. Personal financial stability can also help ratepayers keep up with bills from Norwich Public Utilities, which returns 10% of its annual revenues to the city for public programs and initiatives.

In the Community Development Department, Crees said it will be two to three weeks before she is able to take applications for the business assistance program as officials await additional guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The goal is to help local business owners with expenses like rent and utility bills so they can stay in business and retain employees, Crees said.

She said final details will be publicized in newspapers, social media and through organizations such as the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce and Norwich Community Development Corporation.

The CARES Act relief aid will also provide $25,000 to St. Vincent De Paul Place for its food pantry; $10,000 to the ARC of Eastern Connecticut to pay for personal protective equipment for Norwich staff and clients; and $7,000 to Madonna Place to continue providing items such as food, diapers, hygiene items and personal protective gear for children and families despite a reduction in fundraising opportunities due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Jillian Corbin, executive director of St. Vincent De Paul Place, said the number of households that signed up with the food pantry for the first time amid the pandemic more than doubled compared to the same period last year. Daily visits, which averaged 119 per day from March 17 to May 31, were up 14% over the previous year.

Coronavirus restrictions led to a program redesign that incorporated a “grab and go” component, curbside service, and delivery options, according to Corbin.

She said visiting the Cliff Street pantry has been especially difficult during the pandemic for clients who feared leaving their homes due to their age or chronic health conditions, or those with multiple children who rely on public transportation.

“Fortunately, we have a small group of volunteers that have been able to take the angst out of the situation by delivering the food and the hygiene supplies to them,” she said.

She credited support from donors, including the $25,000 in federal coronavirus aid, for helping to keep food on the shelves as the organization recovers from inconsistent supplies earlier in the pandemic.

“In March, for example, we were not able to buy any food in bulk. It was the community members who went to the store to purchase items for us, sometimes only six at a time, as supplies were limited,” she said.

Corbin noted the availability of food at local stores and suppliers has since increased as the organization continues to serve almost 1,000 households in the city.

It’s a need that’s not likely to go away anytime soon, she warned.

“The demand for charitable food assistance is expected to remain at elevated levels for the foreseeable future,” she said.