BRATTLEBORO—Groundworks Collaborative’s plans for an emergency overnight shelter at 39 Frost Street regained steam recently after sitting on the new organization’s back burner.
For many years, when the seasonal overflow shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street closed each spring, Groundworks staff — who then worked for Morningside Shelter and the Brattleboro area Drop-In Center — felt uncertain about where the seasonal shelter would be located the following year if the church couldn’t house it.
Last year, Morningside and the Drop-In Center merged to form Groundworks — but the issue remained.
A community organization committed to helping people find stable housing lacks a stable emergency winter shelter?
The irony isn’t lost on Executive Director Josh Davis.
“Closing the emergency shelter and handing out tents does not feel like a viable solution, but right now, it’s the only option,” he said.
It’s why Groundworks has set its sights on purchasing and renovating 39 Frost Street. Last year, the Selectboard approved funding for a feasibility study and a grant to help Groundworks investigate the property.
But the project needs support.
“Help us have a home,” Davis said during a recent interview.
The community was very fortunate that for nine years the congregation at the First Baptist Church found a way through uncertainty to help shelter people during the cold months, Davis said.
End of an era
But it’s the end of an era. The congregation voted to sell their building, and 2016 marked the final winter the church could host the seasonal overflow shelter.
Combine the uncertainty around the location for an emergency shelter with the fact that Groundworks’ day shelter and food bank — the Drop-In Center on South Main Street — is busting its seams, and that the long-term shelter at Morningside has reached program capacity, and it’s time to find more space.
“We’re utilizing every nook and cranny of the resources we have,” Davis said.
Lack of space at the Drop-In Center and Morningside has prompted Davis to pull back on some programming.
Problems include finding confidential meeting areas and fitting three employees in a 10-by-10 office.
Davis said he’s proud that staff haven’t allowed the space issues to become a barrier.
“It would be nice if everyone had their own desk,” he added.
The 39 Frost St. project represents Groundworks “carving out space for the larger vision of working on housing and food insecurity,” Davis said.
Davis expects the work at 39 Frost to roll out over a few years. First, he said, the organization will make a few renovations this autumn to prepare the space as a seasonal emergency shelter.
Next, he hopes the food shelf will move to Frost Street. Finally, the organization will expand the building to accommodate a day shelter, overnight shelter, administrative offices, and program space.
Housing every client
The long-term vision for the new shelter is to make permanent housing an option for every overflow client, he said.
During the past year, according to Davis, more than 20 households using the emergency shelter found permanent housing.
Since Groundworks formed last year, the organization has helped 78 households find permanent housing, he said. Davis didn’t have pre-merger numbers.
Davis credited the organization’s support services — mental health support, case managers — with helping 80 percent of clients who find housing, stay in housing.
Davis said final costs related to the 39 Frost St. project are yet to be determined. The property will cost approximately $300,000, he said, and the first renovation phase is estimated to cost $50,000.
Work will happen in phases because that’s what the organization’s human and financial resources allow, he said, noting, “We’re still realizing the impact of this merger.”
The organization’s capacity is still thin, Davis said. He expects Groundworks to end the fiscal year with a 10 percent deficit.
Donors and supporters felt excited about plans for Frost Street early on, Davis said. Still, they urged caution and asked him to move the project slowly.
“I tend to want to jump in with both feet,” Davis said with a smile.
He appreciates the support, guidance, and counsel he’s received. Groundworks isn’t a real estate agency or developer, he added.
“I’m very thankful for the people like that in my life right now,” Davis said.
The search for space
The organization vetted a number of properties before deciding to focus on 39 Frost Street. The properties needed to be close to downtown but not on Main Street, priced affordably, and have room to expand as program needs changed, he said.
Davis said having the overflow shelter on Main Street “reinforces stigma,” because clients are so visible. The Frost Street building rose to the top as the best choice.
Still, he adds, it’s not perfect. Davis noted the building sits in the flood plain and requires flood mitigation measures like making sure the first floor is above base flood elevation.
Groundworks is at the “tail end” of a feasibility study on the project, he said. Work has included an environmental review, engineering study, and architectural study.
Groundwork’s environmental study has indicated that the property can comply with being used as a shelter and offices, Davis said.
The building has housed an auto-body shop and other industry. According to Davis, the current owner conducted extensive environmental work on the site, such as removing contaminated soils.
Engaging the community
Davis said community members have voiced concerns about moving a shelter and program space to Frost Street. But he said the conversations have gone well.
Community organization F.E.E.T. — which stands for the Frost, Elliot, Elm Triangle — has asked Groundworks to join.
Davis is excited by the prospect.
“We can be more a part of what’s already happening in the community,” Davis said.
When asked what might happen to the Drop-In Center, Davis said the organization plans to slowly phase out the building and probably, eventually, sell it.
The Drop-In Center has reached the end of its useful life, he continued — for example, the building is too small, and the driveway can’t accommodate both delivery trucks and cars.
Davis marveled at Groundwork’s one-year anniversary, noting that the year has had its share of transition and learning how the two former organizations now function as one.
A collaborative effort
People still ask him, “why Groundworks Collaborative?”
According to Davis, “collaborative” tips its hat to the legacy of the Drop-In Center and Morningside as independent organizations.
By doing away with designations like “shelter” or “center,” the name also allows the organization to grow and change as clients’ needs change, he said. The staff has a vision of clients living with dignity that expands beyond the word “shelter,” Davis said.
“Ground” also hints at foundations and a place were things grow and take root, he said. Acknowledging the multiple arms of Groundworks — Changeworks, Foodworks, Jobworks, Housingworks, Supportworks — the name implies working together.
“There’s ample space for people to get involved with the work that we’re doing,” Davis said.
The organization has some new projects in the works — all puns intended — Davis said.
Groundworks is partnering with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital to have a nurse practitioner at the Drop-In Center for 15 hours a week to help clients access medical care, Davis said.
Jobworks and local organization Food Connects are designing a social enterprise to help clients find employment, he said. Davis added that the two organizations are developing their business plan. United Way of Windham County has helped with funding, he said.
“We have a huge population of people who are ready and willing to work but need opportunities,” he said.
The community remains supportive of programs that help people meet their basic needs, Davis said.
“[The 39 Frost Street project] is an investment in that.”