FALMOUTH — When people think of Falmouth, they probably visualize expensive homes and fancy cars whose owners spend their days playing golf and sipping drinks at one of the town’s three country clubs.
While that may be an accurate image of the lives of some residents, for a growing but frequently ignored segment of Falmouth’s population, such a lifestyle is more like something out of a fairy tale.
While the average single-family home value in town is just over $450,000, in the past year the number of Falmouth residents requesting general assistance has nearly doubled. Schools have seen a steady increase in the number of children qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, and the Falmouth Food Pantry, which opened in July 2008, now regularly provides services to more than 140 people.
“We’ve been inundated with new clients,” said Dorothy Blanchette, who runs the food pantry at Town Hall.
Barbara Anderson, 59, and her husband Phil, rely on regular visits to the food pantry to provide them with items they can’t purchase with the food stamps they receive from the state.
“Phil always says we live on Poorside, not Foreside,” Anderson said.
The couple live on Longwoods Road in the house where Phil grew up, the house his parents built in the 1930s. Phil worked as a car mechanic for years and Barbara worked as an aide for an elderly woman who lived nearby.
A few years ago, Phil was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema and could no longer work. Not long after, the woman Barbara cared for died.
Now the couple live on Phil’s disability payments, which are less than their mortgage payment.
“We’re about to lose our home,” Barbara said. “That’s the worst thing that could happen to my husband.”
In addition to relying on the food pantry for food, toiletries, cleaning supplies and other necessities, the Andersons also recently received help paying their electric bill.
“Our friends save up their bottles for us so we can return them,” she said. “It helps.”
Barbara has lived in Falmouth for 20 years. Several of her 10 grandchildren attend to Falmouth public schools and she is very proud to call the town home.
“It’s so peaceful and quiet here. The people are so friendly,” she said. “I love Falmouth.”
In 2008, Falmouth spent approximately $15,000 on general assistance, which pays rent, utility bills and provides food vouchers for residents who qualify. In 2010, the town spent almost $90,000.
“It’s continuously going up and up,” Town Clerk Ellen Planer said. “A lot of people have lost jobs, haven’t been able to find jobs, are waiting for Social Security funds, there are a number of single parents. This is a safety net for people.”
The state-mandated general assistance program costs are split between the state and the municipality. Falmouth pays the People’s Regional Opportunity Program to run the general assistance program out of the Town Hall; residents must produce their financial records to prove they qualify for the program.
Cracks in the program
While general assistance helped 389 people in Falmouth last year, there are some who fall through the cracks.
Peter Leeman is one of those people.
Leeman, who couldn’t remember if he was 55 or 56, lives in a small house on the Foreside that he inherited from his parents.
When he was 19 years old, Leeman was in a car accident on Blackstrap Road that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. He spent nine months in a rehab facility in Virginia, then came back to Falmouth, where he has lived for the past 30 years.
“This used to be all summer cottages and a trailer park,” he said of his neighborhood, which is now dominated by large, single-family homes with multi-car garages. “It’s changed a lot.”
Leeman now pays more in annual property taxes than his parents paid for the property in 1940s. His medical bills continue to increase as coverage for medications and treatment is reduced. He recently had to install a $70,000 driving controller in his van when the old one could no longer be repaired. The payment is $400 per month.
“I’ll be paying for that for the rest of my life,” he said.
Meanwhile, Leeman has not seen a cost-of-living increase in his disability income in years.
“Sometimes I’m just in the red. Sometimes things just don’t get paid,” he said.
As a result, he has turned to the food pantry to help out, sometimes with food, sometimes with other expenses such as basic home improvement work. His disability income is too high for him to qualify for general assistance from the town.
Both Leeman and Anderson expressed frustration that they are not able to make ends meet. Yet, despite their situations, both were deeply concerned that they only take what they absolutely had to to survive.
“If somebody came to my door tomorrow, and they didn’t have any food, I would feed them,” Anderson said.
She said when she gets depressed about her situation, she turns on the radio and dances around the house. She said it helps her forget, even for a moment, the piles of bills and credit card statements and her diminishing bank account.
“Sometimes it feels really good to take a break from reality,” she said.
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Falmouth Food Pantry organizer Dorothy Blanchette examines a donation of fresh fruits and vegetables from Hannaford Bros. Co. on Tuesday, Aug. 31. The pantry has seen a large increase in the number of people who utilize the service since it opened in July 2008 and will be holding a fundraising dinner and food drive on Oct. 21 from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Falmouth Congregational Church.
Hameid Altaee of Westbrook, Dorothy Blanchette and Martha Bohmann, both of Falmouth, unpack items donated by Hannaford Bros. Co. at the Falmouth Food Pantry in preparation for the arrival of clients. The Pantry is holding a fundraising dinner and food drive at the Falmouth Congregational Church on Oct. 21, which will help stock the shelves for the holidays and support the service for the following year.