When was the last time you knocked on your neighbor’s door? In Montpelier, that simple question has prompted an emergency planning initiative called Capital Area Neighborhoods.
In August, city officials asked volunteers to connect with neighbors who were struggling to pay fuel bills. Although fuel prices later dropped, CAN organizers say the city’s call to civic arms has spawned an informal safety net that is helping vulnerable residents cope with economic hardship caused by the recession.
CAN projects have taken different forms in each of Montpelier’s 11 neighborhoods. In one, volunteers are making home visits to elderly neighbors. Across town, longtime residents are meeting each other for the first time at monthly potlucks and signing up for volunteer weatherization services.
Gwen Hallsmith, director of planning and community development  for the city, says such social “connectivity” has always helped Vermont towns weather hard times. It was only in her lifetime, Hallsmith adds, that Medicaid and Social Security usurped social-welfare responsibilities traditionally assumed by town managers. “There’s a lot of talk about building the physical infrastructure at the national level,” she says, “but we have to build up the social infrastructure, too.”
CAN combines the best of public assistance with old-fashioned human interaction. When organizers leafleted the town this summer, they distributed “Winter Planning Guides” that included contact information for local agencies that offer emergency services.
Diane Derby, a CAN organizer who has owned a home in Montpelier for more than a decade, says she has never seen such “orchestrated coordination” on a citywide level. After all, Derby notes, Montpelier lacks community-organizing tools such as Front Porch Forum , a Burlington-based email listserv serving 10,000 residents, public officials and police officers in Chittenden County.
It’s worth noting, too, that most shut-ins tend to be offline. As a result of the CAN program, organizer Bethany Pombar keeps in touch with an elderly man who doesn’t have access to the Internet.
“I’m never going to come to one of your potlucks; I’m not that kind of person,” the man told Pombar a few months ago. Then he offered his driveway for emergency parking and asked Pombar for help moving an old bed from his basement.
“I consider him a success story in the CAN project,” reflects Pombar, a thirtysomething who caroled outside her prickly neighbor’s house in December. “I keep an eye out for him, and he keeps an eye out for me.”