Safeline, Towns Help Each Other

Front Page / Mar. 16, 2017 9:01am EDT

Group Addresses Family Violence
By Dylan Kelley

Services and activities show no sign of slowing at Safeline, a Chelsea-based nonprofit organization that provides support and assistance to survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Recently earning tax-exempt status, Safeline raised eyebrows at Chelsea’s Town Meeting when Selectboard Chair Joan Goodrich asked voters to consider removing Safeline and two other organizations from Chelsea’s list of town appropriations.

“There comes a time when the town must make some hard decisions,” said Goodrich during the discussion, which nearly excluded Safeline and two others from the list of organizations receiving funding from the town.

Goodrich’s argument stemmed from worries that Safeline’s recently awarded tax-exempt status would represent an unnecessary financial burden on Chelsea’s annual budget due to the loss of property tax revenue.

“They knew about our [tax-exempt] approval,” said Safeline Executive Director Linda Ingold of the Chelsea Selectboard. “… But they sounded like they were unfamiliar with our offer to make payments [to the town] in lieu of property taxes,” said Ingold in reference to a late-January letter to the town that raised the possibility of drafting a memorandum of understanding between Safeline and Chelsea.

By the end of the discussion, Safeline’s support from the town of Chelsea—in the form of a $1,000 appropriation— was preserved when Ingold reiterated Safeline’s offer to continue to contribute to town coffers.

“Safeline appreciates the continuing support we receive from the town of Chelsea,” said Ingold in a 2016 letter to the board of listers requesting Vermont state property tax exemption.

“Safeline requests to make a payment in lieu of local property taxes each year to cover our fair share of local taxes, fire district tax, appropriations and the Health Center assessment… Safeline will be happy to establish a memorandum of understanding with the town, should you so wish,” read the letter dated August 15.

Providing services to towns in Orange County, as well as the northern part of Windsor County, Safeline sent a representative of the organization to each of the 22 constituent Town Meetings where services to the community are provided and funds are requested, Ingold said.

“We need everyone to know what our services are,” said Ingold in a telephone interview. “[Being at Town Meeting] shows the value of support from the communities we serve.”

Beyond Intervention

“When you look back over the period of a year, it’s really kind of astonishing how much we do,” says Safeline Educator and Volunteer Coordinator Judy Szeg from her office on Main Street in Chelsea.

In addition to their longtime work of running a 24/7 hotline providing immediate assistance to community members experiencing a sexual or domestic violence crisis, Safeline also works extensively to provide services that go beyond the minute to minute crisis management.

“We try to be holistic and we try to connect people with the resources that are important to them,” said Szeg.

For many survivors, walking away from an abusive environment involves significant financial risk. In addition to losing the income and housing that is often controlled by an abusive partner, survivors may also find themselves looking for a new job in a new town with few preexisting connections to draw on.

To remedy this, Safeline offers assistance in resume writing, as well as other forms of economic advocacy, including helping survivors navigate public assistance programs and providing financial literacy seminars.

“Our services are defined by community needs and funding,” said Ingold. “We create things as we get the need and as we get the funding.”

One such need was supplemental access to food and other indispensable staples that might be scarce at local food shelves already struggling to meet community demand.

“Why don’t we have a food shelf here so that people have more opportunity to tap into that?” said Szeg, recounting a conversation years earlier.

Following that conversation, Safeline established a modest, in-house food shelf with special attention given to stocking essential items not covered by Vermont’s supplemental nutrition assistance program (Three Squares), such as laundry detergent, diapers, soap, and toilet paper.

“We try to be mindful of what are the things that you need that are not being met anywhere else?” said Szeg. “A lot of the things that we do are being defined very much by the needs of the people we serve.”

It Takes a Village…

Meeting the nuanced needs of a multifaceted community is often demonstrative of the gulf between the possible and the pragmatic. Even with their new tax-exempt status, Safeline relies heavily on its constituent communities in terms of both funding and human capacity.

“Something that is very critical for programs like us is to work with our community partners,” says Szeg who devotes much time and attention to managing the increasingly important volunteer contingent of Safeline.

“We always have relied on volunteers and we always will rely on volunteers,” said Szeg. “There are a lot of community connections that… hopefully, will help keep us going through all the unknowns.”

Of particular concern to Safeline is the national conversation regarding possible cuts to the federal budget for social support systems.

According to a recent report by VTDigger, Vermont stands to lose as much as $1.5 billion in funding to the Agency of Human Services. Additionally, the possible elimination of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act puts Vermont at risk of losing a further $9 million in federal grants for domestic and sexual violence programs.

Back in Chelsea, Szeg draws on two decades of experience in the face of “feast or famine” funding cycles and several changes of power in Washington.

“When you consider that 20 years ago we had three staff positions and now we have four-and-a-half,” she said. “In some respects it hasn’t changed all that much.”

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