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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Tenants offered a new sense of safety

Low-income housing residents learn skills to boost their awareness

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro Housing Partnerships (BHP) Executive Director Christine Hart saw a distinct change in a recent batch of residents’ questionnaires.

Residents said they felt unsafe. They didn’t pinpoint specific incidents or situations, Hart said, but many wrote about experiencing a general sense of fear and uneasiness about their surroundings.

According to Hart, one resident wrote that her unease has lingered since Tropical Storm Irene hit the community in 2011.

A handful of BHP residents have contacted The Commons concerned about increased drug activity in their neighborhoods.

The Brattleboro Housing Partnerships responded to residents’ feedback by holding a short course with Patrick Donahue, founder and chief instructor of the Brattleboro School of Budo. The two-day workshop, held over two weeks, focused on increasing participants’ awareness of their surroundings.

Donahue also provided instruction on body language and walking with confidence. While participants learned a few self-defense moves, the majority of the class sought to help people learn techniques for staying calm during stressful encounters.

Fewer than 10 people attended the workshop. Those that did, however, reported to BHP staff that it was useful.

BHP, formerly known as the Brattleboro Housing Authority, owns and manages 307 housing units across six properties in Brattleboro: Hayes Court, Melrose Terrace, Moore Court, Ledgewood Heights, Samuel Elliot Apartments, and the Ann Wilder Richards building.

A seventh property, Red Clover Commons, is under construction.

Hart said that in general, she has witnessed more “out in the open” crime in Brattleboro as a whole. Based on her conversations with residents, their sense of vulnerability stems from overall community unease rather than BHP-specific incidents.

“The unease is very reflective of what’s going on in our own little town, our state, and our nation,” Hart said.

“Who’s to judge if you’re feeling unsafe is rational or not,” she said.

When asked what kind of incidents or increase in crime has she witnessed at BHP properties, Hart responded that the change has happened over many, many years.

The crime has migrated from the shadows into the sunlight, she said.

People who carry out “activities” feel comfortable acting in broad daylight, Hart said. They feel it’s okay.

In general, the BHP has responded to disruptions in the neighborhoods with a net of services and relationships — residents, staff, social workers, and the police department — to fish people back into the communal boat.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, at the end of the day, some people have to leave,” Hart said.

Evicting someone from public housing is a long legal process, she added.

Public housing shelters people who want to quietly live out the rest of their lives, Hart said. Also, it shelters those who are restarting.

“We know we’re housing the people for whom this is the best restart,” she said.

Add to that the rest of society’s struggles and it compounds some of the issues or incidents making residents uneasy, she said.

She hoped the safety workshop helped residents feel safer.

When asked about concerns that gangs and drug activity had infiltrated BHP properties, Hart said that there was an overt issue a few years ago. Staff and local police dealt with it. Some of the people involved were evicted.

BHP has good property managers who weren’t born yesterday, she said. “We’re not just sitting on our hands.”

Hart added that “drugs and gangs” is an endless mantra she hears about public housing properties.

That behavior happens in all communities, she said.

“No neighborhood — anywhere in this country — is immune to this [drugs and gangs] coming to their neighborhood,” she said.

Yet, somehow it’s okay for people to assume it only takes place at public housing properties, she said. “It just burns me.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #335 (Wednesday, December 9, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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