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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Brattleboro resident Shoshana Rihn speaks at the April 3 meeting.


One goal at a time

Community discussion on homelessness draws crowd

BRATTLEBORO—When he smiles, laugh lines crinkle around Edwyn “Ed” Cross’ eyes and mouth. Tonight, his smile is a rare sight.

“Is my picture going to be in the paper?” Cross asks. “Good. Because I want my picture in the paper. I want people to know.”

Cross, 48, wants to advocate for people in the homeless community.

“I’m still homeless,” he said.

Cross lost his housing three years ago. First he lost his job. When the unemployment ran out, he could no longer afford his rental apartment of 20 years.

Street lights flicker behind him as he sits at one of the metal cafe tables outside The Works Bakery Cafe, smoking a cigarette while people stream from the packed eatery into a cool early April night.

Richard French, owner of The Works, hired Cross five weeks ago as a baker. Prior to The Works, Cross had three years experience at a baking company. Today marked his best batch of bagels.

Cross starts work at 3 a.m. All the baked goods at the cafe except the brownies come from his efforts. He describes a maple walnut muffin recipe he’s developed that day.

Cross loves everything about his job.

“Being creative is number one,” he said.

Yet, he adds, the new job goes deeper than fine tuning his recipes and baking routine.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to get my self-respect and dignity back,” he said.

A friend waves. Cross tells him he’ll see him at the church later.

Cross sleeps at the overnight shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street.

Now that he has a job, Cross will focus on finding a place to live.

Cross participated in a community discussion on Brattleboro homelessness at The Works the same night as the April 3 Gallery Walk.

It stung him to listen to so many people who appeared to have stable housing talk about homelessness.

“I wanted to say, ‘you all could be homeless tomorrow. You all could be jobless tomorrow,’” he said. “‘What makes you any different?’”

The packed meeting grew from a discussion last month between downtown business owners, service providers, and town employees. A recent survey found there were 170 homeless people in Windham County in 2014, up from 126 in 2013, an increase of 35 percent.

Participants at the March 5 discussion focused on revitalizing a day-labor board through the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center. They also struck the date for the April 3 discussion.

Last Friday night, as people streamed by the cafe’s large windows, French stood on a chair addressing the crowd crammed into the cafe seating and standing in a ring by the counter.

Action and solutions, said French: That’s where this conversation must lead.

French also announced he hired Cross.

“I’m really, really proud of Ed,” he said. The business owner has hired staff who were homeless in the past.

“My success rate is one in 10,” French continued. “And I hope Ed’s one.”

A woman in the audience said she has been homeless for three years.

“Housing is the key piece,” she said. Get people homes and then deal with the underlying causes.

Don Stetson, who identifies as homeless, attended the first community conversation last month.

People sleep on the shelter floor, he said of the overflow shelter. Why not get a cot or couch for everyone using the shelter?

The meeting moved quickly. After brief introductions, community members divided into topic groups. Each group spent 20 minutes discussing what they believed led to homelessless and brainstormed solutions. Next, over approximately 15 minutes, the groups reported to the group as a whole some of the ideas they had generated.

Brainstorming and problem solving

The group discussing root causes of homelessness defined one cause a competitive economic system that requires a portion of the population to remain poor. Social mores such as demonizing those living in poverty also contribute to homelessness, said the group.

A solution suggested by the root-cause group was to pinpoint through larger discussions social beliefs influencing how the community acted on the problem.

The second group discussed a need for day shelters and public lockers where people who were homeless could leave their belongings.

This group highlighted the lack of space at the Drop-In Center, lack of transportation to and from the center, and the overall desire for more comfortable shelter space overall.

Suggestions from the day shelter group included using vacant downtown buildings for housing and shelter space. The group noted that the community extends an unequal welcome to people using public space: the community is allowed and “the others” are not. It cited as an example a municipal ordinance that prohibits camping.

A third group focusing on affordable housing also suggested using vacant buildings for housing.

According to the spokesperson for the affordable housing group, Housing First models have shown some success. These programs find a person stable housing first and then focus on solving any underlying struggles such as trauma or addiction.

These programs, however, are not widely implemented because the current economic system places profits before people, said the group’s spokesperson.

The group said society should not criminalize people who are trying to meet their basic human needs through actions such as stealing food if they’re hungry. The group suggested taxing homeowners to fund affordable housing.

A fourth group investigated how society views and labels homelessness in a degrading fashion. There are community members and then there are the homeless. These distinctions exist despite the fact that most people in the community are living one of two paychecks from the edge, members of the group noted.

The “empathy” group suggested establishing peer-led groups, holding a homelessness-centered Gallery Walk, and a “listening festival” where people who are homeless could share their experiences with their neighbors.

Supportive services was the next topic presented by group number six.

This group suggested creating a mobile access team to bring early recovery support and services directly to those who are homeless. Establishing a creative financing group to pool community resources, like the $1.2 million donation recently given to the Brooks Memorial Library, could also help coordinate efforts in town.

Brattleboro needs a 24/7 shelter where people receive three meals a day, said the members of the group focusing on planning meal programs in town. Free meals are served in multiple Brattleboro locations, yet none serve breakfast.

A final group discussing jobs suggested an employer-led training program to help people who are homeless and unemployed receive a paycheck while undergoing on-the-job training. An employer would “adopt” a new employee similar to the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring model.

The jobs group also suggested employing those who are homeless as outreach workers and peer-mentors.

New voices

In his five years in community organizations and three years as executive director of Morningside Shelter, Josh Davis hasn’t seen as large a turnout to discuss homelessness.

Overall, he left the meeting feeling positive, he said.

Davis found the involvement of a local business owner like French refreshing.

Solutions to this issue will come from inside the community, he said.

“There’s so much energy behind this discussion,” said Davis. “People want a change. People want something to happen.”

From Davis’ perspective, the causes of homelessness get pegged to things such as the collapse of the housing bubble that sparked the collapse of the financial markets and plunged the nation into recession in 2007 and 2008. However, the housing gap boils down to the fact that “the status quo isn’t working,” he said.

He said he wants Brattleboro to develop a vision for dealing with homelessness.

What if the community’s goals, vision, and action steps were outlined as a formal town-wide program in something like the Town Plan?

What if residents knew how the community planned to end homelessness, like they knew the date of the town-wide elections or the names of the members of the Selectboard?

It takes leadership, Davis said, but opportunities, such as economic development, for the community reside within the solutions to homelessness.

If the town’s business community, homeless community, and residents work as partners, the whole of Brattleboro could flourish.

“I’m still an optimist,” Davis said. “I think we’re on the cusp of something cool.”

Falling into place

No one at the night’s meeting doubted that the problem of homelessness feels as large and insurmountable as a mountain.

Yet, many also shared Davis’ optimism.

“Everything else is falling into place,” said Cross.

Cross said he has met the first of three main goals: finding a job. Next, he and another man at the shelter who has a full-time job will look for an apartment to share.

“Nowadays, a single person can’t live off of this income,” he said pointing toward the cafe.

Cross said he has experienced the shame and disgrace of homelessness. Once settled in stable housing, he will fulfill his third goal of becoming an advocate for those who are still homeless.

According to Cross, he has spent nearly every day in The Works since it opened. It feels good to stand on the other side of the counter.

“It hits home to see the ones on the other side and me working,” he said.

Sometimes, he buys a friend a cup of coffee, even though Cross said he knows he can’t help everyone.

Cross said one of the most painful experience of homelessness for him is his loss of family love and support.

“Family’s supposed to be for family,” he said.

He wants moral support, not money from them, Cross stresses.

“It seems the only love and respect I get is from strangers,” he said.

Raised in northern Vermont, Cross said he has lived and worked in Brattleboro for many years. Some family members live in the area.

After three years of filling out three job applications a week, Cross said having work feels good.

“I’m not one to take charity,” he said.

The community conversation will continue. Anyone interested is encouraged to attend the next meeting in May.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #300 (Wednesday, April 8, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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