But COVID effects less than expected
As winter closes in each year, more local residents need help putting food on their tables, paying utilities and rent, or coping with mental health issues.
The seasonal increase in the need for assistance is continuing this year, although staff at the valley’s food bank, The Cove, say the demand isn’t as dramatic as they expected it to be after almost two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The need for mental health support and social services is seeing a typical seasonal upturn, according to staff at Room One, the valley’s primary provider of social services. Overall, requests for services have remained relatively stable over the past two years, they said, with the exception of helping more people process unemployment claims last year.
In fall and winter, many seasonal workers in the Methow Valley see their income shrink, while heating costs increase. That means more people need help making ends meet, said Glen Schmekel, executive director and founder of The Cove in Twisp.
The Cove, which distributes food to local residents each Thursday, saw its second-biggest day of this year last week, when it provided bags of food to 78 Methow Valley households. Rick Lewis, food bank manager, said the week before Thanksgiving was the busiest so far, with 82 households receiving food at The Cove’s weekly distribution.
“It’s just that time of year, when seasonal jobs have ended,” Lewis said.
The Cove saw a surge in need for food assistance during the early months of the pandemic, said Schmekel. But that need leveled off as last year progressed, and has remained relatively stable through this year, with the usual seasonal fluctuations, he said.
“When I look back over the last three years,” Lewis said, “our busiest year was pre-COVID. We didn’t see the numbers we expected during the COVID pandemic. We still haven’t caught up to what our numbers [of food recipients] were pre-COVID.”
As local businesses temporarily closed and tourism slumped last year due to COVID-19, The Cove expected to see a jump in demand for food. But after the initial increase in early 2020, the demand never materialized as anticipated.
“We don’t know the reason for that,” Lewis said. “Some of it may have to do with extra money being put into people’s unemployment checks.”
Federal and state pandemic relief programs, local and regional assistance programs and philanthropic efforts “may have taken some of the pressure off The Cove,” Lewis said.
“We’ve had cycles before, and it seemed with COVID it would increase the need, but there were all sorts of ways of helping people,” Schmekel said.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a program of The Cove that distributes holiday food baskets to families, has seen requests for the baskets this year at levels similar to last year, and even lower than before the pandemic.
“We thought they would go up … but in my phone calls to [previous] basket recipients, I have had folks tell me they are OK this year or have moved. I think it’s a little of both, which have kept numbers constant,” said Jennifer Elden, who coordinates the program. “I definitely have new folks receiving a basket that have not in the past two years as well. One seems to balance out the other.”
Neighbors Helping Neighbors will provide the baskets, which include all the fixings for a holiday dinner, to 120 households this year, the same number as last year. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, the program served 130 households, Elden said.
The Manger Mall, another Cove program, provides holiday gifts for parents and guardians who can’t afford to buy them. This year the program provided gifts for about 155 children, which is slightly lower than the past two years, Elden said.
The Cove also provides emergency financial assistance to people who need help paying rent and utilities. That program has seen typical seasonal increase in demand as the days get colder and utility costs go up, Schmekel said.
Mental health needs
The cold, dark days of winter always bring more people to Room One seeking support for mental health needs, said Kelly Edwards, managing director.
“We’re coming into the darker time of year … and then you layer the exhaustion of year two of a pandemic on top of it,” Edwards said. People are coping with “the repercussions of a very long pandemic without a lot of promise on the horizon.”
“People are still recovering in a lot of ways from last year … needing support in not feeling isolated, and feeling like they can manage and take care of themselves,” said Erin Flahive, manager of the One-Stop Support Center at Room One in Twisp.
“There have always been those things, but maybe felt more intensely because of the past year and a half. COVID has impacted how we connect with people, how we gather,” Flahive said.
Room One supports people experiencing domestic violence, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, Edwards said. “That exhaustion and feeling isolated and at the end of our rope … violence is a repercussion of that – it happens when all those collide. We’re supporting a number of women … trying to keep them as safe as they can be in unstable, unhealthy situations,” she said.
“COVID made things a lot worse when it came to domestic violence, because everyone was home. There’s no outlet, it creates more of a pressure cooker,” Edwards said.
Helping women stay safe is made more difficult by the lack of women’s shelters or affordable housing in the Methow Valley, Edwards said.
“With no rentals available and no place to move locally, women may not be able to leave their house,” Edwards said. Room One works with them on developing plans to protect themselves and their children if they can’t escape their living situation.
“The shelter situation is bleak and COVID made it worse,” Edwards said. The Support Center in Okanogan, the closest shelter to the Methow Valley for victims of domestic violence or crime, has had to restrict occupancy to one family at a time because of COVID-19 safety precautions. Prior to the pandemic, four women and their children could be sheltered. Flahive said the center can help people in some instances by arranging lodging in a motel.
Requests for help with housing, utilities, medical bills and other financial needs increased significantly last year as COVID shutdowns impacted people’s livelihoods. “Our ability to help was boosted by some of the funds we manage, and grants we were able to apply for,” Flahive said.
“The biggest difference from last year to this was supporting people with unemployment,” she said. Requests for help negotiating unemployment claims soared last year. “There are still a handful dealing with claims they have filed … a fraction of the number we supported on that issue last year.”
Lack of affordable housing in the Methow Valley has been an ongoing problem for valley residents, and has become more so with the sharp increase in property values and an influx of new residents to the valley over the past two years.
“When people realized they could work remotely, so many people moving into the valley drove up the [housing] costs. That has a ripple effect,” Edwards said.
“Every week we’re working with people on housing. A common thing we’re seeing is people losing rentals,” often because the property is being sold, Flahive said.
Room One services
Wildfires this past summer, which shut down much of the Methow Valley’s tourism industry for several weeks, added to the continuing economic impacts of COVID for many residents, Flahive said.
Still, even with the seasonal upswing in need for support, this year is on track to see a lower demand for services at Room One, Flahive said.
In 2020, Room One tallied 2,624 services provided, Flahive said. Those services include things like providing cash assistance for utilities or medical bills; referring people to help through other agencies; or navigating unemployment claims. Room One served 403 individual clients last year, with 151 new clients.
This year, with one week left (Room One will be closed the final week of December), Room One has provided more than 1,740 services and assisted 340 individual clients – more than 100 of them new clients, Flahive said.
The support that Room One is able to provide local residents is closely tied to partner agencies like The Cove, Okanogan Community Action Council, Okanogan Behavioral Healthcare, Methow at Home, the Lookout Coalition and Jamie’s Place, Flahive said.
“We refer to them so much. They’re critical to supporting our community members,” she said.