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At Loaves and Fishes at the Centre Congregational Church, John Moriarty and Ruth Tilghman offer a hot, home-cooked meal. Tilghman, the program coordinator, reports that volunteers for the two-day-a-week meal usually serve 130 people.

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Volunteers keep people warm and fed in the storm

Welcoming respites serve homeless community during harsh weather

BRATTLEBORO—As a Jim Carrey comedy plays on the television at the back of the community room in the First Baptist Church on Main Street, approximately 15 women and men of varying ages sit at tables and in chairs, some watching the movie, others chatting. One woman asks to borrow a phone.

A smaller-than-expected snowstorm that swept through southern Vermont on Monday night and Tuesday closed many of the agencies, organizations, and businesses in the area.

However, here at the Overnight Overflow Shelter, managed by the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, people who are homeless could also come in throughout the day on Tuesday to find respite from the snow and the cold.

“Being homeless is a full-time job,” says Patty Gilbert, case manager with the Drop In Center.

When the overnight shelters close at 7 a.m., she says, those without homes need to find somewhere else that’s warm.

Most days, the center, on South Main Street, is open for people needing a place to shower, do laundry, or get supplies from the food shelf.

The tiny house, however, cannot host everyone needing a day shelter during a storm. The center was closed Tuesday, but the overnight shelter space at the church remained available for many, whose warm place would otherwise be the Transportation Center or Brooks Memorial Library.

A ‘laid back’ snow day

Gilbert started working at the Drop In Center last autumn after 30 years working for the state.

Along with her colleague, intake specialist Farris Cathey, Gilbert notes that the snowstorm has brought a “laid back atmosphere” to the temporary day shelter.

Nothing is open, they say. No one has any appointments to go to, and no one had to be out of the church by 7 a.m.

The Center is busy, says Gilbert. A lot of people who are homeless or people who live in substandard or overcrowded housing need things like showers and phones, services that the Drop In Center provides.

Gilbert adds that she’d love it if folks would donate more long johns. The Center never has enough thermal underwear for the people it serves.

Cathey has worked at the Drop In Center for five years. He said he’s usually so busy he only has time to sit at the computer and work.

“I have to put on my face,” Cathey says. “Not my mean face — my business face.”

Today, he enjoys the chance to sit and visit.

Gilbert does a quick head count of the people in the community room.

The shelter averages about 30 people a night, she said. The numbers have decreased a bit on this snowy afternoon, she said; a couple of the folks who normally stay overnight have left for work.

An elderly man bundled in a parka and hat shuffles in from outside.

Gilbert and Cathey sit forward and with concern call to the man.

“Where have you been?” asks Gilbert.

The man provides an ernest but slightly dazed answer.

Gilbert and Cathey tell him he can’t go out into the cold again without telling them.

“I was getting some fresh air,” says the man as he shuffles away.

Gilbert watches him. “He’s one of the reasons that we’re open today,” she says.

He’s homeless and has become forgetful, she says. He has a doctor’s appointment coming up. Meanwhile, everyone in the shelter keeps an eye on him.

“It becomes their own community,” she says.

Rosie Gardner, the Drop In Center’s food shelf coordinator, will come by later with food to cook the evening meal, says Gilbert.

Pointing to a variety of games on a nearby table, Gilbert says that one of the gentlemen in the community room will teach her to play Cribbage later.

“This community is fantastic,” she says. “There are wonderful, quiet people who don’t want the recognition but they do so much.”

A extra helping of support

Across a snow-covered Main Street in the basement of the Centre Congregational Church, Ruth Tilghman and fellow volunteers at Loaves and Fishes ladle homemade beef stew, potatoes, and vegetables onto large white plates held by a line of men and women.

“Will you please eat some chicken soup so we’ll feel better?” asks Tilghman, the program coordinator. The chicken soup is accepted.

No one leaves unfed.

When asked how long she’s volunteered at Loaves and Fishes, Tilghman has to think.

She guesses 10 years.

Tilghman loves to cook and experiment with new recipes. Loaves and Fishes allows her to cook more than she would for herself at home.

And then there’s the many friendships built over the years.

“I get much more out of this than I’m giving,” she says.

There’s food insecurity in this area, Tilghman says; the kitchen is doing what it can to alleviate it.

On a typical day, the kitchen, open on Tuesdays and Fridays, feeds about 130 people — fewer today, because of the weather.

“This is not a normal day,” she says.

Loaves and Fishes also feeds approximately 27 children ranging in age from 6 months to 4 years and their 10 teachers at the nursery center, also located in the Centre Church.

Tilghman said the kitchen also serves 18 to 21 families through a weekend backpack meals program. The program provides enough food for two “dry meals” like pasta and spaghetti sauce, along with some frozen food prepared in the kitchen by volunteers.

A man who identifies himself as Wandering Bob eats at one of the long foldable tables in the dining area. Behind his chair rest a large rucksack and a pair of snowshoes.

Wandering Bob says he snowshoed to Tuesday’s lunch from West Brattleboro. He has been eating at soup kitchens for 30 years.

“This is the best meal in town,” he said.

In his opinion, the volunteers pour their time and caring into what they serve and the quality of the ingredients.

When asked to name his favorite dish, Wandering Bob says, “I can’t pick because you never know what they’re going to make.”

He jokes with one of the volunteers and also talks about an accident years ago in Virginia. Wandering Bob says a car hit him at 50 mph.

“I bumped my noggin a few times,” he says.

He points to a series of instances that slid him into the category of working poor and poverty, including coming home one day to an apartment in Portland, Ore., to find his roommate had absconded with everything.

In Wandering Bob’s opinion, the town has no warm place for people who need shelter to stay all day. If someone is a chronic alcoholic and they have the choice between the cold streets or a warm jail cell, what do you think they’ll do? he asks.

He thinks the town would be well-served to require that anyone arrested multiple times for the same offense — like public drunkenness — be required to check into the Brattleboro Retreat for one month to get help.

Volunteer Jeff Hiam, on a break from serving food, sits near Wandering Bob to eat his lunch.

“It’s good food,” he says. “Kind of food you give to the people you care about.”

Hiam, tall and thin with round glasses and a short beard, hesitates at first to offer his last name. “Just Jeff, in the spirit of acting without recognition,” he says.

He started volunteering about three or four weeks ago after meeting Tilghman at their church, St. Michael’s Episcopal. He’s preparing to return to college but says that, for now, volunteering for Loaves and Fishes is a good place for him.

When asked why he volunteers at the kitchen, he answers, “Because I’m a Christian, and every Christian is called to minister.”

The number of people who eat at the kitchen “speaks poorly of our larger system,” says Hiam, who is 27 years old.

“I remember 27, that was a good year,” Wandering Bob says enthusiastically.

Hiam grins, lines creasing around his mouth and eyes. “It’s been a pretty good one.”

As the lunch ends, volunteers and regulars clear the tables and rearrange the chairs for the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that will follow.

“Where are you going?” one man asks his friend.

“I don’t know yet; library, probably,” the friend replies.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #290 (Wednesday, January 28, 2015). This story appeared on page A5.

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