NORWALK, Conn. – There were Norwalk families struggling even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lamond Daniels, Norwalk’s Chief of Community Services, said.
“COVID has just exacerbated (that),” he said to the Community Services and Personnel Committee of the Common Council on Thursday night. “There’s families and residents and individuals who for the very first time found themselves saying, ‘I need help. What do I do?’”
Since Daniels was hired in fall 2019, one of his main tasks has been to “support and coordinate the social services delivery system” in Norwalk.
“That is why you all voted in support of this department,” he said. “There was a gap in how all these organizations worked together.”
His department, created as part of the recent City reorganization, oversees the Fair Rent Department, Human Relations, the Health Director and the Library Director, as well as a Human Services Director, a new position that is still in the process of being filled.
Daniels provided the Committee with an overview of his department’s efforts, particularly what they’ve been doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The big piece that’s keeping us very busy is identifying resources and opportunities to respond strategically to emerging needs and trends,” he said. “One of those emerging needs is food.”
Prior to the pandemic, a 2019 analysis from Fairfield University’s Center for Social Impact showed that about 11 percent of Norwalk residents were considered food insecure, and those needs have been exacerbated by loss of jobs and health issues related to the pandemic, Daniels said.
Person-to-Person, a nonprofit that helps provide food, clothing, and other financial assistance to those in need in the Greater Stamford-Norwalk area, has reported a 50 percent increase in demand at its Norwalk food pantry, Daniels said. Open Doors Shelter has seen a 30 percent increase in the need for food since early March.
Because of this, Daniels said they’ve partnered with organizations such as the Alliance for Community Empowerment, which has delivered food to 175 families and Cornerstone Community Church, which has brought over 2,000 blessing boxes of food that can feed a family of three for 3-4 days.
Connecticut Food Bank also held an event in May, where 2,000 cars received food.
Daniels said they utilized data from Norwalk ACTS to find out where the most students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch live and they set up now 17 food distribution sites to provide children and any Norwalk resident with meals.
In June alone, those sites served 76,492 breakfast meals and 77,690 lunches.
Daniels said they’ve also been using those sites as “community informational hubs,” to give those who come information about the census, allow them to get books from the pop-up library, sign up for SNAP, help them register children for preschool and kindergarten, and provide them with other resources. The newest site added to make it 17 was The SoNo Collection.
Besides food, Daniels said his office is also hosting bi-weekly senior services calls to see what providers are doing to help the seniors in town and a bi-weekly community and social services call to see if new needs come up. They’re also partnering with organizations that specifically address mental health and well being, domestic violence, LGBTQ populations, and youth well being.
“We’ve been home since March, that can be a lot for families,” he said.
Some of the departments who report to him are beginning to offer a wider varieties of services now that some of the pandemic restrictions have been limited. The library is now offering a curbside pickup program where residents can request books and receive them in a bag. The library is also looking into possibly opening up computer use by appointment only, to help bridge the digital divide for people trying to apply for jobs, social security, or other needs.
The Health Department, which Daniels said has been “very, very busy” since the pandemic hit, will also begin providing services like STD testing by appointment only. It’s also working on contract tracing for those who may have been exposed to the virus, and preparing for flu season, including working on putting together a drive-thru flu vaccine clinic.
“It really shows us how much Norwalk needed this department and how much you’re the right person to coordinate the services,” Council President Barbara Smyth, who also chairs the committee, said. “You have really, really done a remarkable job of doing that.”
Equity and Justice for All Commission Update:
In June, Daniels and Mayor Harry Rilling unveiled plans for an “Equity and Justice for All Commission” that would: “develop a commission of local leaders and community members representative of Norwalk who are dedicated to education, dialogue, and actions surrounding race and ethnicity that will effect change.” The initial framework for the Commission will include “reviewing, evaluating, and updating the 1993 Blue Ribbon Report on Race Relations” and building “awareness, solutions, and direction for racial justice and equity by generating transformative ideas, solutions, and practices.”
The Commission will be facilitated by a consultant that will help them refine their framework and give them areas the city can work on.
A seven member committee will select the consultant, Daniels said. The committee will include Smyth, as a representative of the Common Council; a member of the Board of Education; a representative from the NAACP; a youth member recommended by Connecticut Youth Leadership; a member of the Hispanic/Latino community; a member of Norwalk ACTS; and a member of the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship of Norwalk (IMF). The final three consultants in the bidding process will be required to make presentations to and interact with the public to see if they are a good fit, Daniels said.
“We want to make sure they understand our community,” he said. “We’re following the best practices across the country.”
The bids close on Aug. 11, and the initial award is for a one-year contract.
“It appears from a state perspective our approach is very unique,” Daniels said. “We’re actually getting a lot of calls from our neighboring communities.”
Story copy edited at 2 a.m. Aug. 1.