BRATTLEBORO—Despite the warmth of this summer, the staff of Groundworks Collaborative have the cold days of winter on their minds.
In November, the organization, which serves the area’s homeless population, will open its winter emergency night shelter. Come this November, however, the emergency shelter’s traditional location, the First Baptist Church on Main Street, may not be available.
To avoid leaving an average of 25 people out in the cold Vermont winter, Groundworks has sought a new location for the emergency shelter.
At its Aug. 24 meeting, the town’s Development Review Board (DRB) approved Groundworks’ application for a change of use permit at 39 Frost St.
Conditions to the permit included no construction in the special flood hazard area, adding a bike rack, and meeting fire safety conditions such as installing a sprinkler system.
The organization plans to retrofit the former auto body shop in time for the November opening of the emergency winter overflow shelter.
According to staff at Groundworks, the Frost Street site could meet short- and long-term needs.
In the short term, the property would serve as the emergency shelter.
In the long term, it may house the emergency shelter, moving the Drop-In Center from South Main Street; hold the food shelf; and provide space for case managers and administration offices.
Retrofitting the property will include fire and safety improvements. The organization has also applied to the Windham Regional Commission’s Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund.
Still, many of the organization’s plans are still a lot of spinning plates. Staff said a lot still needs the go-ahead, such as additional funding.
“We need to expand,” said Joshua Davis, Groundworks executive director. Money will dictate the overall plans for 39 Frost.
Right now, getting 39 Frost ready for a winter shelter is a “stopgap,” Davis said. The collaborative still needs a permanent solution to meet a growing demand.
Davis added that Groundworks would likely rent 39 Frost for the first year and purchase the building in the spring. Its owner, Peter Putnam, is asking $356,000 for the property.
Putnam told the DRB that his business was diligent in collecting and safely disposing of hazardous waste through the Windham Solid Waste Management District. The building had venting and a spray booth for painting.
“It’s basically an empty building,” Putnam said. “You can’t tell it was an auto body shop.”
Groundworks has a six-month option to buy the building, Davis said. The organization anticipates appearing before the Brattleboro Selectboard Sept. 1 to ask for a planning grant.
That planning grant, said Davis, will then help the organization’s next step of applying for a $250,000 to $500,000 implementation grant. Funds are needed, for example, to explore what kind of building improvements can happen in the special flood zone area of Frost Street hit by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
This is a “generational investment,” Davis said. “Let’s do this expansion right the first time.”
Early estimates point to it costing $20,000 to retrofit 39 Frost, Davis said.
“We don’t have ownership of the building” at this time, he said. “And, quite frankly, can we afford it?”
The First Baptist Church on Main Street has housed the winter overflow shelter but the building might be sold soon, Davis said. Groundworks is moving ahead as if the church were unavailable.
Teamwork for a big mission
Davis complimented the team focusing on helping Groundworks expand.
Stevens & Associates, the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, Windham Regional Commission, and the town of Brattleboro “are a great team,” he said.
“It’s always full-throttle around here,” said Libby Bennett, development director at Groundworks.
A lot of changes have come from the merger, she said.
The model of reversing homelessness Morningside Shelter had used for 37 years is antiquated, Bennett said, characterizing the shelter as managing homelessness rather than helping people find housing.
Bennett said that the average stay of residents is 110 days. Groundworks would prefer the stay to closer to 90 days.
Groundworks is exploring a “housing first” model that houses people and then connects them to services that help them stabilize and keep their housing.
It’s a three-legged stool of housing, state subsidies, and case management, Bennett said of changing how shelters attempt to reverse homelessness.
Right now, she said, the state holds all the subsidies.
Brattleboro has a “desperate housing market,” Bennett added. The 0.5 percent vacancy rate means that for every 200 apartments one is vacant. A healthy rate is 5 to 6 percent.