Social service agency ABCD opens Norwalk office

CAFCA | August 04, 2017 |

When Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now closed its doors in 2012, it left a gaping hole in the city’s social services net.

In the time since, area nonprofits and city departments have worked to fill the void. Now, one more is joining the mix.

Action for Bridgeport Community Development, Inc. — which has provided energy assistance in Norwalk since NEON’s exit — celebrated the grand opening of a Norwalk office Wednesday, intended to serve people from Norwalk and Westport. The organization opened in Bridgeport more than 50 years ago and serves nearly 30,000 individuals and 11,000 families annually throughout Fairfield County.

“I’m looking at this as a new era, a new beginning,” said Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, who will be responsible for selecting Norwalk representatives for the ABCD board of directors.

“For years we had the NEON organization in Norwalk. Unfortunately they filed bankruptcy and for quite some time, the people in Norwalk that had significant needs for the basic things that we all take for granted, didn’t have a place to go. They didn’t have a central location to go to find out where they could get help.”

The new office will house the energy assistance program and a supportive services office, which will take a holistic approach to case management. Though the social services agency provides a whole host of services in Bridgeport and the surrounding towns — from early childhood and youth services to energy assistance and supportive services — ABCD is only bringing these two departments to Norwalk.

Though the arrival of a new social services agency had many celebrating, some local social services leaders are concerned ABCD will continue to operate as an outside agency simply offering services in Norwalk, rather than as a Norwalk-focused organization. ABCD is opening a Norwalk office but will operate under the Bridgeport-based board of directors and staff.

Adam Bovilsky, human resources and fair rent director for the city of Norwalk, said his department took on many of the clients who no longer knew where to turn for services following NEON’s closure. He said he is looking forward to working with the agency to help them become accustomed to Norwalk.

“I think that any new resource that we can bring into the city to help support our more vulnerable populations is valuable. I am glad that in addition to energy assistance, they’ll also be providing supportive services. I look forward to learning more about those services and how we can work collaboratively with ABCD.”

The 2016 ALICE Report, released in the fall by the United Way, estimates 36 percent of Norwalk residents are living paycheck to paycheck based on an adjusted poverty line that considers the cost of living in the area. Bovilsky said this is a good measure of the number of people who will need to take advantage of social services at some point, so adding another agency with a South Norwalk office certainly can’t hurt.

ABCD has provided 2,200 Norwalk households with energy assistance over the past three years. Carmen Ramos, who runs the energy assistance program for ABCD, said she hopes to expand this service with the new office.

“I know the need is out there,” she said. “Together we need to reach out to the community and find out what their needs are. We can work together and serve more clients.”

William Bevacqua, ABCD assistant executive director, said ABCD made the decision to open a Norwalk/Westport office after they were approached by the Connecticut Department of Social Services about doing so. DSS also asked ABCD to complete a needs assessment for the community.

“We will be, in conjunction with the other social services agencies in the area, responding to the needs that were brought to us for the services that we provide,” Bevacqua said. “We discovered the needs here are energy assistance … career and job assistance … case management, and we’ll try to work very closely with local schools in terms of the early learning programs, and the intent is to work very closely with whoever is designated as the Head Start provider.”

Bevacqua emphasized that although ABCD will be filling part of the void left by NEON, the organization will not provide all the services previously offered by the now-defunct nonprofit. That means they’re not planning to take on Head Start programming, which is currently under federal interim management. The federal Administration for Children and Familiesposted earlier this month a competitive funding opportunity specifically for the Norwalk service area. The deadline to apply for the nearly $1.6 million to run the program is July 31.

“We have it under review, but we’ve made it very clear to most of the folks that Head Start really belongs to a Norwalk-based entity and we’re prepared to work in tandem with whoever gets designated,” Bevacqua said. “Right now, unless it doesn't come to pass that an agency is interested in it here or can meet the requirements, we’re hoping that a Norwalk-area agency takes on those services.”