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Community members move forward efforts to reverse homelessness

Anyone interested in joining the core action group on homelessness may contact Joshua Davis, executive director of Morningside Shelter, at 802-257-0066.

BRATTLEBORO—Edwyn “Ed” Cross is no longer homeless.

After three years of sleeping at shelters, Cross will move into a private residence. He’ll have his own room and share a kitchen. He’s on a waiting list for a one-bedroom apartment.

Box number two on a list of three goals — checked.

Cross shared his happy news at the third community forum on homelessness at The Works Bakery Cafe on April 30.

Cross’ three top goals included finding a job, getting an apartment, and becoming an advocate for other people who are homeless.

Approximately two months ago, Works Bakery Cafe owner Richard French hired Cross as a baker.

In March, French gathered local business owners, town staff, and members of local human service organizations at the cafe. A discussion on the effects of homelessness on local businesses grew into hosting community-wide forums on solving the issue.

Cross has also launched himself into goal #3, helping other homeless community members. Sometimes that help includes small acts like buying people coffee or food.

On Thursday, that advocacy included questioning town staff about ordinances Cross feels are aimed at homeless community members, like the prohibition of camping on town property.

“You can never do enough,” he said. “There’s always more to do.”

Intense interest

At least 100 community members, municipal employees, and human services professionals attended the third community forum about reversing homelessness in Brattleboro.

The Thursday-evening forum focused on moving participants from discussion toward taking concrete actions.

Similar to previous gatherings, participants broke into small focus groups to discuss issues such as root causes of homelessness, food access, affordable housing, jobs, and building respect and understanding toward people who are homeless.

Data from state agencies have recorded an increase in homelessness.

The Vermont 2014 Point-In-Time Annual Statewide Count on Homelessness found that homelessness in the state had increased 9.27 percent compared to the previous year.

Windham County’s 2014 numbers also increased from 126 in 2013 to 170 in 2014. Of those counted, 49 were children.

In a 2015 report, the The National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research estimated that 1 in 30 children, or 2.5 million, in the United States are homeless. In 2006, the ratio was lower at 1 in 50 children experiencing homelessness.

The National Center on Family Homelessness ranked Vermont sixth overall in the country for its efforts to end childhood homelessness.

Yet, the organization also ranked the state first for the risk of a child becoming homeless.

School Board and Selectboard member David Schoales told the crowd that more than 60 percent of elementary school students in Brattleboro live in poverty.

According to Schoales, part of the education bill under consideration at the Statehouse contains Section 20, which focuses on coordinating state agencies to better deal with poverty in schools.

He urged people to contact their senators to support Section 20.

Bob Oeser, who volunteers for the meal site Loaves and Fishes, and Jeanne Deyo, who marshals Grace’s Kitchen, talked about community meals.

According to Deyo, now that the emergency overnight winter shelter has closed for the summer, Brattleboro lacks a breakfast meal site.

“What this town needs is a 24-hour shelter,” she said.

Volunteers needed

Oeser encouraged forum participants to visit the free meal sites in town and to consider volunteering.

Brattleboro is at a critical point, he said. Volunteers are aging and wishing to retire. Many of the meal sites have reached their maximum capacity.

Connie Snow, executive director of the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust, spoke on behalf of the affordable housing discussion group.

That evening the group outlined many housing models, including building clusters of tiny houses.

Various models aside, said Snow, the main obstacle in the area is not enough affordable housing.

According to Snow, Brattleboro has a vacancy rate of 0.5 percent.

“So, we need more,” she said.

Rebeka Lawrence-Gomez, assistant director of Pathways Vermont, reminded audience members that the organization practiced a housing first model.

Similar to what Utah has done, Pathways Vermont houses people without preconditions.

Find the housing first, and then help people access support services like addiction treatment or mental health support, she said.

According to Lawrence-Gomez, under the housing first model, providing housing and services costs $42 a day per person.

The program has an average housing retention rate of 85 percent. On a given night, 85 of 100 program participants are housed in permanent, independent housing.

Participants also noted that reversing homelessness may mean changing laws around things like loitering, camping, or trespassing.

Singled out

Taking a cigarette break after the forum, Cross expressed frustration at how laws are applied to homeless people.

Why can’t homeless people pitch a tent in a non-residential area, he asked.

If a homeless person is sitting on a bench without causing a problem for anyone, why should they get a citation, he continued.

“That’s wrong to us,” Cross said.

To maintain momentum, forum organizers said they hope that people will volunteer to become part of a “backbone group,” said Chad Simmons.

This group would identify priorities and run with projects “raising money and changing laws,” he said.

Cross snuffs out his cigarette and digs in his pocket for The Works’ key. It’s time to lock up.

He’s still deciding what to set as his next goal.

It will be something difficult, he said. A real task.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Cross said. “And I’m up for the challenge.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #304 (Wednesday, May 6, 2015). This story appeared on page A3.

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