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Launching a conversation

Involving the whole community in solving homelessness

BRATTLEBORO—The second community conversation on homelessness this month grew from a discussion between downtown business owners, service providers, and town employees.

Richard French launched the discussion during an early morning meeting on March 5.

“Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll are happening in the bathrooms here at 118 Main St.,” said French.

In a quiet voice, French said he wanted to be honest with everyone. This winter has been a tough.

“I’m looking for help here,” said French.

It’s hard to turn a profit in this business without turning the tables, he added.

“We want to position ourselves as a community cafe,” he said.

Yet he struggles balancing the cafe’s business needs with his goals to run a socially responsible organization in a caring community.

“We want to welcome all walks of life,” said French. “That’s a delicate balance."

And lately a difficult balance, said French. Customers have complained, some of whom are parents, about some of the homeless patrons who spent all day during the cold months at the cafe.

French owns eight Works locations spread between New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine.

All of the cafes deal with the tension between more affluent (and housed) customers and homeless customers, he said.

However, he said Brattleboro’s homeless situation is “is by far the most extreme.”

Some of his homeless customers, after spending all day in the cafe, attempt to sleep there too by locking themselves in the bathroom.

French described the situation as leaving him “distraught.”

One upsetting situation for him was telling a couple with a crying two-week old baby they had to leave. It was one of the coldest nights of the winter, added French.

“It tore my heart to tell them they had to move on,” said French.

French has asked some of his clientele who are homeless why they choose to spend the day at The Works over other places in town.

Answers have included that the cafe is the most welcoming place in downtown absent a day shelter.

French quickly added that the problem of one customer hogging a table all day did not rest only with homeless customers. The cafe is also trying to dissuade college students from next door at Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College from using a table all day for homework.

“This is a penny business,” said French. The cafe is lucky to earn four cents out of each dollar it brings in, he said.

He said he struggles with how to best use those four cents to effect positive change in the communities that house his cafes.

As the March 5 conversation at the long table continued, more and more men who described themselves as homeless gathered to listen.

Donald Stetson spoke. He pointed out that Brattleboro lacked a winter day shelter.

Stetson said he has been labelled “homeless,” end of story. Yet, he added, he receives a small income, he is disabled, and deals with untreated mental health issues.

“My point is I don’t have anywhere to go,” said Stetson.

He asked why the town doesn’t at least have a location — like lockers — were people can store their belongings so they don’t have carry their entire life around all day, worry about theft, and endure the looks of, “oh yeah, there’s another homeless guy.”

Homelessness in Vermont increased 9.27 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year, according to a population count taken last January.

The Vermont 2014 Point-In-Time Annual Statewide Count of Homelessness, an attempt to count the number of homeless people in the state every year on Jan. 28, found that 1,556 people stayed that night in shelters or on the street. Statewide, 371 children were counted as homeless.

Windham County’s 2014 count increased over the previous year from 126 to 170. Of those counted, 49 were children.

Organizations behind the report, the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness and Chittenden County Continuum of Care, warn that the actual numbers are likely higher.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #300 (Wednesday, April 8, 2015). This story appeared on page A2.

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