Always a need: Vt. shelter faces more homeless, less help
Kevin O'Connor / Staff Photo The back door of Brattleboro's First Baptist Church doubles as the entrance of the town's winter homeless shelter, which prohibits inside photography to protect client privacy.
BRATTLEBORO — This town’s winter homeless shelter has endured too many seasons of bad news, from its host church having to sell a Tiffany stained-glass window in 2010 to its longtime leader dying of a heart attack last spring. So operators exhaled over the summer after relocating many former overnight visitors into apartments.
But when the shelter reopened last week, organizers at the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center understood they still had work to do. Many longtime volunteers have retired after “getting older or burned out,” new director Lucie Fortier says, requiring a community call for assistance. And while help is down, the number of homeless guests is up — in part because of the arrival of more women and youth.
“Usually we’ve started the first few nights with a half dozen people, but we’re already averaging 12 to 13,” Fortier says. “We anticipate our numbers will increase through the winter to between 20 and 25 a night.”
The Brattleboro shelter made national news two years ago when ABC anchor Diane Sawyer reported the host First Baptist Church’s $85,000 sale of its Tiffany window to avoid closure. But many social service leaders now consider the facility more of a state model — it’s the only “wet” refuge that allows homeless people who are intoxicated.
Stop by the Gothic downtown church nightly at 5:30 p.m. and you’ll see pillows, sleeping bags and foam mattresses ready to be unrolled on the parlor floor or, for women and children, in Sunday school rooms. The only things more abundant than the bedding are the items on the prohibited list: additional alcohol or drugs, smoking, swearing, R-rated movies, nudity and inappropriate conduct and contact.
Organizations in other communities, fearing strangers under the influence, have declined requests to run similar shelters. But after three homeless Vermonters froze to death last winter — including a Burlington man who was drinking before he succumbed to hypothermia while sleeping on an outdoor heating grate — the state’s largest city is just one of several cities and towns in the Green Mountain State exploring options.
“There’s always talk and always a need,” says Kim Woolaver, co-chairwoman of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. “We’re expecting it to be a cold and challenging winter.”
That said, Woolaver, who’s also executive director of Barre’s Good Samaritan Haven, says her 30-bed facility is struggling just to find space for another 10 to 15 sober guests a night, let alone tackle creation of a “wet” shelter.
Woolaver’s state coalition co-chairwoman Jeanne Montross, executive director of Middlebury’s Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), says her area also is discussing what “I’m sure is going to be an increasing issue.”
“It’s not necessarily the alcohol but the behavior,” Montross says. “I don’t know that people would be barred for having consumed alcohol prior to arriving, but if they caused a problem that would have to be addressed. People will have to develop the response they think is most appropriate for their community. Different areas of the state will have different approaches.”
Back in Brattleboro, Fortier says the biggest challenge isn’t alcohol or behavior but the economy. Her shelter opened just after Thanksgiving 2007 and hosted 49 people by the following spring. Then the country sank into a recession in the fall of 2008, sending donations into the cellar and demand through the roof.
The shelter housed 133 individuals this past winter and expects the figure to rise from now through March. Many clients are working poor or parents who can’t find help anywhere else. Last year the facility saw its number of women jump from 7 to 33, with a nightly average of 10. The tally is expected to rise because of cutbacks to government assistance, which has allowed a single mother to stay in a motel up to 28 days.
“They’ve already told us to anticipate more needy families,” Fortier says.
That will require more money and manpower — something the shelter is constantly seeking. Organizers currently have enough supporters from the Area Interfaith Clergy Association of Christian, Baha’i, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim communities to prepare and serve daily dinners. But they’re issuing a public plea for more volunteers to monitor a first shift from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. and a second from 1 to 7 a.m.
The Brattleboro Area Drop In Center also oversees the region’s Project Feed the Thousands annual food drive, which now is working to amass $100,000 in cash donations and enough nonperishable food to provide 200,000 meals.
Some could view the collective task as overwhelming. Fortier sees it differently.
“There are ways for everybody to help,” she says.
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