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An Interview with Hal Cohen, New Agency of Human Services Secretary

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by Joyce Kahn

Hal Cohen. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Hal Cohen. Photo by Carla Occaso.

Several days ago I sat down with Hal Cohen, the newly appointed secretary of the Agency of Human Services, and talked with him about his interesting and colorful career. For the past 18 years, Cohen was executive director of Central Vermont Community Action, now called Capstone. Before that, he worked with difficult adolescents, was the director of a drug and alcohol center in Lynn, Massachusetts, and helped found two homes for children, one in New Hampshire and one in Israel. He also worked in the field of major gifts fundraising. Cohen said, “I worked for the Jerusalem Foundation, where I worked with Teddy Kollek, who was the mayor of Jerusalem for over 30 years, rebuilding the city. I helped build hospitals and day-care centers and parks.” In the interview that follows, Cohen looks back on his years at Capstone and forward to his new job.

Reflecting back on Capstone, Cohen talked about what it was like when he got there in July, 1996. At the time, there had been no executive director for seven months and there were some budget difficulties. Cohen said, “I had all of these programs that were closed in on themselves and didn’t want to be part of a larger organization. They were nervous. They were scared.” The agency was not doing outreach, had given up emergency-type services, and people weren’t coming in the door. Cohen brought back outreach workers and re-opened the food shelves. Cohen said, “When somebody’s hungry, when somebody’s homeless, when somebody’s cold, you can’t talk to them about moving out of poverty. You have to stabilize families.” The focus became to stabilize first and then look for ways to help move them out of poverty.

As Cohen looks ahead to his new position, he stated his priority “to ensure that vulnerable Vermonters, people who can’t protect themselves, are protected.” He then listed the spread of departments under the umbrella of Human Services: the Department for Children and Families (DCF); the Department of Corrections (DOC); the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living (DAIL); the Department of Health (VDH); the Department of Mental Health (DMH); and the Department of Vermont Health Access (DVHA). He then quickly seized on the need to integrate services.

In discussing the tragic cases of the two children who died even though the DCF was involved, Cohen underlined the need for better interdepartmental communications. “In reading the reports, I realized there were connections between all the departments. This is not to blame one department. For example, there were substance abuse issues — that falls under the Department of Health. If you are a typical person in poverty, you have to go to all these different programs to get services. One of my staff drew a map of what a person goes through to get the different services. That person has to go to ten different places. They would spend their lives going from one office to another. So we have to find a better way to integrate our services so a family can more efficiently and more realistically get one-stop shopping.” Cohen noted that AHS has been working on integrating services, and that is something he will emphasize and push. He also noted,” We have to ensure that we have the procedures, the policies, and the resources to do everything possible so that these tragedies don’t happen.”

Cohen views limited resources as one of the biggest challenges he faces. He also sees the need to prioritize and be more efficient. Cohen spoke about the efficacy of bundling resources and how the flexibility to move funds around to go where the priorities are can lead to better outcomes.

Cohen draws a distinction between situational poverty — a series of events that result in a person’s dropping out of the middle class and into poverty for a short time -— and generational poverty, where one is born into poverty and it is passed on from one generation to the next. He said, “I don’t know the statistics on it, but my guess is that there are as many people in situational poverty as generational poverty. But it is difficult to move out of either form. I think we have more success with situational poverty. For people who are in situational poverty, sometimes being on something like Reach Up for a temporary period of time and getting certain forms of government assistance gives them the basis to make that jump out of poverty. In Vermont, many people live on the edge, and all it takes is one thing to knock them off the edge. It could be Tropical Storm Irene. It could be sickness. It could be losing a job. It could be divorce.”

But one thing Cohen is passionate about is that no one should go to bed hungry or be homeless. Cohen stated, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it, but one of my priorities will be to ensure that we have affordable housing, that we have the opportunity to live in a safe home, and that no one goes to bed hungry.” Cohen then spoke about several success stories. For example, a teenage mother who took advantage of parenting education, Head Start, the high school equivalency program and the Community College of Vermont. These actions led her to a career. Another success story involved a political refugee who took advantage of Capstone’s business counseling, a financial literacy course and a matched saving program which helps participants find capital and build assets. This refugee was able to start a food-related business and build a factory. Cohen emphasizes asset development as a way to move out of poverty. “What we realized is that people who develop assets do not live in poverty. One of the reasons is that when you have an asset or when you’re trying to build an asset, you’re not just thinking about getting by today. You’re thinking about the future.”

Speaking about how to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the state, Cohen favors early release. He said, “We’ve been working with the Department of Corrections (to find) housing so that men and women who have met their minimum sentences are getting early release. I think it’s a great concept. First of all, it’s much less expensive than keeping somebody in prison. Second, it’s a transition into the community. So I think it really helps in terms of reentry. I’m going to look at more opportunities to do that. We’re talking about non-violent offenders.” He also emphasized the need for treating people with addictions instead of incarcerating them. Cohen praised Governor Shumlin for having the courage to draw attention to the drug problem in Vermont, resulting in a waiting list for people needing treatment.

I found Hal Cohen to be a thoughtful, soft-spoken man whose career of service will serve him well as Secretary of the Agency of Human Services. Noting wryly that while many people have congratulated him, and a few have offered condolences, he concluded the interview with these words: “I look around and I hope in six months I still have friends, but I’m going into this job knowing that I have a great deal of support, and that people are really pulling for me. I think that really makes a difference. I am really excited, and I’m happy to be doing this. I hope I can make a difference.”

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