Coordination through chaos

Part one of a look at Wayne County’s human services team

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HONESDALE, PA — On a cool, overcast morning that feels like it could yield either rain or snow, a woman leans on her walker at the bay of the Wayne County Senior Center garage. Masked workers greet her with bags of food prepared by the kitchen staff and offer pastries donated by Weis Markets.

The woman turns down cupcakes but agrees to some buttermilk biscuits after a volunteer convinces her that it would go well with some soup.

“Thank you for all that you do,” she says as she departs; another car soon pulls up. Food gets handed off to the driver quickly, but two workers linger, bent down near the passenger window, catching up with the man inside the car.

“So, how have you been holding up? You still getting your Wendy’s?”

After a few minutes, Mary Ursich, director of the Wayne County Area Agency on Aging, waves as the car pulls away, “We miss you!”

Walking back into the garage she laughs, “He’s one of my favorites.”

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the agency to close its buildings to the public, the drive-through meal service every Monday through Friday presents one of the few opportunities for employees to have a few moments with local seniors who they’re used to spending time with every day.

The agency on aging staff has taken several measures to keep in touch with seniors remotely: regular wellness calls, exercise classes streamed through Facebook on Mondays at 9 a.m. and over-the-phone referrals. Overall, providing meals is perhaps the most in-demand service the office provides. The kitchen staff produces around 400 meals every day, and home-deliveries are especially high.

“Our home delivered meals are way up over 25 percent of what we used to do,” said Amy Constantino, food service manager. “We’re probably close to 35 percent now, that’s how many people are taking advantage of getting meals delivered right to their homes.”

At the agency on aging’s human services counter parts, the story is much the same. While other county operations have ground to a halt as a result of COVID-19—forcing the commissioners to furlough about 20 percent of governmental employees—most human services directors say they’re busier than ever.

Heather Miszler, housing coordinator for the housing department, and her two-person staff have received an influx of referrals over the past month. Miszler is expecting the number to grow, and is trying to change the department’s funding strategy to preempt a large rise in homelessness.

“We mainly focus on homelessness as opposed to homelessness prevention because that’s the funding we receive, but I recently submitted a revision to one of our grants so we can help with homeless prevention during COVID-19,” she said. “I will see an influx of people who aren’t able to pay their rent because they lost their job.” She added that with social distancing guidelines in place, homeowners are less likely to let someone come crash on their couch than they may have been before the pandemic. She’s seen one instance of that so far.

The two homeless shelters in the county are already at full capacity, Miszler said.

Housing caseworker Elizabeth Ennis said that day-to-day aspects of her job have gotten harder because of the global crisis.

“Not a lot of people are renting at this time, because of everything going on, so inventory for consumers has been [even more] limited than usual,” she said. “One of the issues I have run into is that some of the landlords that we work with live in New York or out-of-state, and they don’t want to come here.”

Working with out-of-state landlords, and following the county’s own safety standards, Ennis has had to learn on-the-spot how to do her job remotely. The same is true for human service employees across the county. Wayne County Drug & Alcohol Commission director, Jeffrey Zerechak, said that the commission is continuing all of its “core services” and “primary responsibilities,” while changing its business model to fit the pandemic requirements.

“Our prevention staff are working diligently with the school districts we serve—Wayne Highlands, Western Wayne, and Wallenpaupack—to create online resources and messaging, along with being available to talk to high-risk students just as if we were in the schools,” he said in an email. “All of our local treatment providers continue to operate via telehealth.” He added that the county’s recovery housing and most in-patient drug and alcohol providers throughout Pennsylvania remain open with added safety protocols in place.

Carl Albright, transportation director, said that he worked closely with other department heads to adjust to the significant changes which happened nearly overnight. “Coordination is key,” he said.

With more people staying home, county drivers are transporting fewer people. Non-life-sustaining trips have been canceled, but Albright said his department is continuing its essential operations.

“We have less trips overall that we’re doing, but the flip-side of that is the trips we are doing are critically needed,” he said. “They’re medical appointments, they’re food access, pantries, VIP—those kind of things that just have to happen during this time.”

In addition to coordination among department heads, Ursich said that the county has received a great deal of support from the Wayne County community. Most notably, the agency on aging has a “Sponsor a Senior” program which accepts donations to help pay for meal distribution; a nine-year-old girl recently donated her birthday money toward that program.

“I had tears in my eyes when I saw it. I said, ‘I can’t even believe this.’”

This is part one of a story on the Wayne County Human Services Department. See the second half next week.

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