If you lost your job or got divorced and suddenly were down to one paycheck to pay the family bills what would you do? Imagine one person dying or becoming ill in a two-income family. Where do they turn?
There's an organization based in Darien that steps up to help people in dire circumstances. Emergency financial assistance is available to residents of Southern Fairfield County through grants and loans from Person-to-Person.
The volunteer-run non-profit helps individuals and families who lack basic necessities or resources. People who seek the service are in a temporary crisis or living in ongoing poverty.
"Low-income people in communities in Stamford, Norwalk, working families, people with disabilities, senior citizens, its' really a wide range of folks who are struggling and for the most part who are working and having trouble making ends meet," said Person-to-Person Communications Manager Rebecca Cosgrove
"If they're hit with an unexpected car repair, a medical bill, that can sometimes be the breaking point. We're here to keep that from happening and help keep families managing, stabilize," she continued. Longer range support includes 'camperships' for kids and other services to break a poverty cycle for individuals and families," Cosgrove said. There are also scholarships for college and trade schools, some with mentors.
Person-to-Person helps with financial assistance for rent, security deposits, utilities and small emergencies. There's a clothing center and food pantry at the main office in Darien, and a food pantry at Person-to-Person offices in Norwalk. In addition, a mobile food pantry makes five stops in Stamford, including at Ferguson Library. The custom vehicle hit the streets in 2018 with the idea of trying to remove some of the barriers to family stability.
While the agency does not track statistics on specific clients and why they seek help, many are people living paycheck-to-paycheck, and "one car repair or another emergency can mean they need to choose between paying bills and putting food on the table," said Person-to-Person's new CEO Nancy Coughlin.
She noted almost 20 percent are seniors living on a fixed income. Those clients "struggle to make ends meet despite working" while others have a physical or intellectual disability that prevents them from working.
"We do not ask about immigration status so we don’t know how many of our clients are unable to secure employment or SNAP benefits due to their immigration status. Still, others seek help following an emergency – house fire, illness or job loss," said Coughlin.
The high cost of living in Fairfield County means many individuals are unable to afford basic necessities. The Stamford-Norwalk metropolitan area cost of living is 20 percent higher than the national average, making it the eighth-most expensive place in the country to live, according to Coughlin.
According to the 2019 Fairfield County Community Wellbeing Index (Datahaven), nearly one-third of Fairfield County residents say they are “just getting by.” The “household survival budget” for a family of four in this area is just over $8,000 per month, she said.
To manage these costs, families with two-wage earners making minimum wage would need to work two full-time jobs to make ends meet. And the average renter in Fairfield County is $7,000 short of having enough money to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Coughlin took over in October for previous longterm CEO, Ceci Maher, who retired.
Maher is credited with leading the agency for the past 14 years, and in that time, P2P has grown to a thriving community-supported agency with thousands of volunteers and three locations. She championed P2P on Wheels. The 32-foot mobile food pantry has a casework office. P2P on Wheels serves 160 families a week. The organization serves 25,000 individuals each year from almost 5,000 families, according to Coughlin.
"There is no shortage of stories of people we have helped. One common theme is the spiral a family can experience due to an illness or medical emergency," she said.
One woman suffered a life-threatening illness shortly after giving birth and after almost a year of rehabilitation, was able to secure accessible housing. Her husband was forced to switch jobs in order to assist with the infant and the couple’s other child, thereby sacrificing income. The family received help from Person-to-Person with rental assistance, food and clothing.
Coughlin will continue this work to grow and address the unmet needs of more people in Fairfield County. She previously was the executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor which provides food and clothing to families in Greenwich.
She lives in Darien and has been active at the YWCA Darien/Norwalk, Royle School PTO, and the Methodist Family Center Preschool. Coughlin's expertise is in the areas of food insecurity, anti-poverty, and women's and children's issues.
“Having lived and worked in Fairfield County for many years, I have seen firsthand the numbers of our neighbors struggling to make ends meet and also have been privileged to witness the impact of local residents giving back to the community," she said.